Wildfire Season Comes Earlier, Bringing Broader Stories

May 9, 2017
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in George closed on April 25 due to the West Mims fire. Photo: Mark Davis, USFWS
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia closed on April 25 due to the West Mims fire. Photo: Mark Davis, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

TipSheet: Wildfire Season Comes Earlier, Bringing Broader Stories

Environmental journalists in western states know that wildfires are news — predictable, seasonal news that affects people. But today, wildfires are news in many other parts of the country as well. And if you are waiting for the season to start, the news is that it already has.

With fire season here, prepare for covering it by realizing there are broader ramifications. This story is about climate change, government funding, environmental policy and politics, zoning, building codes, air pollution, rural employment and maybe watching your house burn down.

The Southeast is especially dry right now. In Florida, there were some 115 wildfires burning as of late April. That state’s wildfire season typically begins in January and February — although some now say it continues all year round. In Southern Georgia, a wildfire has burned some 150 square miles of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and firefighters said the burn might not be extinguished until November.

It’s only going to get worse. In the West, wildfires have set records of many kinds in recent seasons, especially in 2015, when they incinerated 10.1 million acres. Wildfires have already burned 2 million U.S. acres in 2017, an ominous start.

The good news, if any, is that unusual wetness may put a damper on fires in California this year. But wet years spark the growth of vegetation that may just become fuel down the line.

The first job for most journalists is simply chasing the immediate fire and telling the human stories that come from it. There are some standard tools you should know about that can help.

  • Find your state wildfire agency and note the contact information for its press operation. This may include state forestry agencies and state emergency management agencies.
  • Find the contact information for your local or county firefighting agencies. Find out more about how they will notify people of evacuations and where they are likely to shelter evacuees.
  • Get familiar with the National Interagency Fire Center, the key federal clearinghouse for wildfire news and resources.
  • Bookmark the U.S. Drought Monitor, which maps authoritative information about regional dryness.

There are predictive tools that can help with forecasting and anticipating wildfires. One good one is from the NIFC. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center also publishes Fire Weather Outlooks, both on a daily basis and for longer time-scales. You can get something similar from the National Weather Service. The U.S. Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Assessment System factors in things other than just weather — such as fuel conditions.

It is worth taking extra time to discover the information riches available from the National Interagency Fire Center. For one thing, they offer daily wildfire news and statistical updates.

Many other tools for covering wildfires are included in this recent SEJournal Issue Backgrounder. Plus, this SEJournal interview with a photojournalist on covering wildfires makes for interesting “fireside” reading.

Budget, climate make good pegs for wildfire stories

Fortunately, this year might not be quite as bad as 2015 or 2016. California, for example, is currently experiencing plenty of moisture.

But one thing making wildfires newsy right now is the issue of federal funding for managing wildfires, and the political conflict that goes with it.

The federal omnibus appropriations bill that carries through September 2017 now includes an extra $407 million for this year’s severe fires, in addition to the regular wildfire budget, making a total of $4.2 billion for all Forest Service and Interior Department fire activities.

President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget talked austerity on wildfire without giving specific numbers. The omnibus adds some to current funding levels — which may only slightly alleviate the pain. Congress often underfunds firefighting and then pushes through extra “emergency” budget when the fire season gets rough. Where will funding be in October 2017?

Another current news peg for wildfire coverage is climate change. More and more scientists are saying that the ongoing manmade change in climate is intensifying wildfires in the United States and Canada.

Wildfire risk is increased by a number of factors that depend on climate: warmer temperatures, earlier snowmelt, lower soil moisture and tree-killing diseases, for example. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wildfires have increased since the 1980s. Experts at the nonpartisan Climate Central say climate change is definitely tipping the scales toward an increase in wildfires. Veteran firefighters say enhanced destructiveness is the “new normal.”

One other increasingly weird thing about the wildfire situation today is where (not to mention when) the fires are happening — not just in the usual places like Idaho during July (where wildfire suppression is an industry).

For instance, a series of winter wildfires barrelled across the High Plains states of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas this March, killing seven people and thousands of cattle. That one scorched over two million acres, mostly in the districts of Congress members skeptical of global warming.  

An explosive wildfire in Alberta, Canada, near oil sands operations around Fort McMurray, destroyed some 2,400 homes and buildings in May 2016. And a late November 2016 wildfire around Gatlinburg, Tenn., killed three and displaced some 14,000. Dollywood was spared.

One additional reason fires are more destructive is that humans are increasingly building structures in areas of fire hazard — the battleground being the “urban-wildland interface.” An angle that can be covered year round is how death and damage can be reduced by not locating development in hazardous areas, building more fire-resistant structures and reducing fuel around those structures.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.


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