The most authoritative and complete report on climate change and its impact on the U.S. has dire warnings for the Southeast: destructive wildfires like those seen in 2016 are likely to be more commonplace as the world's changing climate create more fire-prone conditions.
The National Climate Assessment, released the day after Thanksgiving, projects a fourfold increase over the next 30 years in both the area burned by wildfire and suppression cost as forests dry out during longer and more prevalent droughts.
"The report essentially projects that wildfire risk will increase fairly substantially over the next 50 years," said James Vose, a federal coordinating lead author of the report and senior research ecologist at U.S. Forest Service. "That's not only in the West but also to some extent in the Southeastern U.S., as well."
More than 300 experts took part in the 1,600-plus-page report, ranging from 13 government agencies, universities, climate scientists and other experts. It is the first such report under the Trump administration and fourth overall. The report is mandated by law.
President Donald Trump, who's administration released the report, said he doesn't believe its assertion that climate change will be economically damaging for the U.S. And White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed the report was not based on fact and only presented the most extreme scenarios. Many of the report's hundreds of contributors have defended its findings and are urging the government to act more urgently to slow the effects of climate change.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration was once again at odds with allies over the Paris accord on climate change at the recent Group of 20 summit. Nineteen members reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement, with the U.S. — which withdrew under Trump — the lone holdout, according to the Associated Press.
In the meantime, climate scientists believe the Southeast will continue to experience the effects of climate change.
While the West has the largest area burned by wildfire, the Southeast has both the highest number of wildfires and largest area burned by prescribed fire — a common tactic to combat wildfire that the report's authors argue will become less effective in a warming climate.
Fire risk will increase in both forests and local communities if drought and prolonged dry periods increase in the Southeast.
"We have fairly high confidence that whatever changes occur, we will see more intense wildfires," Vose said.
Major fires that had once been considered a once-in-a-hundred-years occurrence could be seen several times within a lifetime, the report's authors predict. The example? The Gatlinburg fires.
In November 2016, a fire started by boys in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park raged across the scenic mountains. Fueled by a severe drought and winds topping 87 mph, the inferno quickly spread to the Gatlinburg area. Local officials and residents were caught off guard. Fourteen people died and nearly 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed. That week, 50 major wildfires burned more than 100,000 acres across eight states. On one day, at least 53 active fires were simultaneously burning in Tennessee.
At least three of those fires burned more than 2,000 acres in and around Chattanooga, endangering the health of many residents. Prolonged drought conditions combined with arson caused a 1,000-plus acres wildfire on an area of Walden's Ridge called Flipper Bend; a fire on Mowbray Mountain burned 800 acres and threatened area homes; and a 550-acre fire near Poe Road burned, as well.
"Like with anything, people should see in the 2016 fires what can happen when we're not prepared," said Kevin Hiers, an author of the report's Southeast chapter and a wildland fire scientist at Tall Timbers Research Station. "As a group of communities in the southern Appalachians, we shouldn't expect this to be an every-year occurrence like we see in California, but what we should be aware of is the potential is there every year. It just took three to four months of no rainfall, then a frontal system and we had the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.
It's very difficult to link a particular fire to climate change. Climate scientists liken it to the steroid era in baseball. More players were known to be using steroids. The drugs made players stronger and able to hit the ball farther. The number of home runs skyrocketed as players increased their steroid use. Home run records were shattered. However, no one could definitely link one particular home run to steroid use. Who was to say that player wouldn't have hit that particular home run without steroids? After all, home runs were part of the game before and after widespread steroid use. While scientists, and even casual observers, knew increased home runs were a result of rampant steroid use, individual home runs could never be linked with 100 percent certainty. Climate change and natural disasters are the same way.
Climate scientists claim a warming climate causes natural disasters. They say the frequency of natural disasters is increasing. They also say with certainty the climate is warming. They don't know however, if any particular natural disasters are caused directly by a warming climate, but they predict devastating wildfires will continue to increase as the climate warms.
Climate change isn't entirely about a warming climate — although that is a big piece of the issue. It's also about more extreme weather variances. Extreme rainfall is expected to be more common, although the total amount of rainfall could remain shorts. The Southeast's rain could come in shorter windows followed by prolonged dry periods.
"There's uncertainty in our region how much wetter, if at all, it will be," said Adam Terando, the federal coordinating lead author for the Southeast chapter of the report and a part of the U.S. Geological Survey at the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. "We have much more certainty that it will be warmer."
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That warmth leads to dry periods which lead to droughts — pulling moisture from the wilderness, creating more fire-susceptible woodlands.
"That's really one of the take-home messages of the Southeastern chapter of the National Climate Assessment," Hiers said. "That's one of those things that's documented change. It's not predicted. It is actually happening now in the observed record, but it is predicted to get worse."
As a result, communities are going to have to take more proactive approaches to avoid catastrophe, and government agencies will need to put an added emphasis on forest management, climate experts warn.
Communities need to prepare for the likelihood the Chimney Tops 2 can happen again and become what Hiers calls "fire wise," he said. Building standards will need to be changed so wildfires don't quickly spread from structure to structure. Evacuation and emergency response need to be updated. Quick, widespread channels of communication must be opened for quick evacuations.
"It puts a lot of stress on managing the forests," said Jonathan Gilligan, an environmental policy and global climate change expert at Vanderbilt University. "We have cities near forests and have to manage that risk. We'll have a lot more demand on managing the forests in our region."