Forest fires and climate change: The American West is burning

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

These are the charred remains of a forest after the fire struck. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Though the fire had stopped burning more than a year earlier, I could still smell the burning. Charred black trunks, occasionally glinting with covering of silver ash, covered this patch of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Walking between the lifeless trees, I had a stark reminder of the intense heat that had once passed through this hillside.

Forest fires are a natural part of the landscape in the American West, but they’re on the rise and getting bigger and more dangerous. In part this is due to warming temperatures across the region - a symptom of climate change - which lead to drier conditions, so fires start more easily and, when they do start, they burn more intensely and for longer.

Alok Jha sees the devastation left after a forest fire has hit. Credit: ITV On Assignment

The smoky skies in the western states, which often hang around for weeks, are a big problem for the residents of Jackson Hole in Wyoming, which sits between the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton national forests. Fewer than 10,000 people live here but the town is a magnet for millions of visitors looking for epic, empty American landscapes, pristine air and clear water.

It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that this town is at the centre of a growing movement in the US to defy the Trump administration’s negativity on climate change.

In response to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate, Jackson Hole became one of the first places in the US to commit to the standing by the international target to cut carbon emissions and transition to a green economy. “That was a no-brainer for us because it’s something that is integrated perfectly throughout our government,” says Jim Stanford, Jackson’s vice mayor. “Every department of our town government is thinking about how they can conserve energy, reduce waste, save the taxpayers money, and pollute less.”

Jackson’s environmental rebellion has been echoed by more than 1,000 groups across the US - cities, states and companies - that have now voiced full-throated support for the Paris Agreement.

In its own state, though, Jackson is an outlier. Wyoming sits on a large supply of coal, a source of jobs and income for many people. Politicians in the state are staunch defenders of the coal industry, despite the scientific consensus on the fossil fuel’s adverse impact on the planet.

This split between city and state is a microcosm of the divide right across America, between those who do and those who don’t think that climate change is a problem worth tackling.

Despite the current division, Stanford is optimistic that Jackson’s environmental stance will win out. The people of Wyoming are connected to their land, and Stanford says they feel a sense of stewardship. You might spend your days working in an office or working in a coal mine in Wyoming, but you’re likely to spend your weekends here in the outdoors camping, hunting, fishing.

Stanford says that people may well fear for the future if their jobs are eliminated but “we don't drive around burning leaded gasoline in our trucks, we don't play track tapes to listen to music. Technology advances, the world changes, we have to roll with the changes as people and I think that the scientific consensus is too strong to ignore.”