Which Western Newspapers Connected Wildfires To Climate Change?

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

As some of the most destructive wildfires in history ravage the Southwest, major newspapers in the area have documented the way climate change makes blazes more likely less than half as often as national newspapers.

Recent fires have taken a massive toll as the hottest, driest parts of the U.S. become even hotter and drier. In Arizona, 19 firefighters perished in the worst American wildfire disaster in decades, a quick-moving inferno that destroyed a small town. Months ago, fire season began early in California, and it has since been called the state's worst ever. Colorado recently experienced the most destructive wildfire in its history, bringing the total area set aflame this season within the state to about 180 square miles, larger than the area of Barbados. New Mexico and Utah have lately faced “unprecedented” and “potentially explosive” fires, respectively.

Fires like these must be sparked (by anything from lightning to a stray rifle shot), but research indicates that climate change, and the extreme heat and drought conditions it propagates in the Southwest, boosts the chances that they will happen and cause significant damage. Indeed, seven out of nine fire scientists contacted by Media Matters as part of a 2012 study agreed that journalists should detail the role of climate change in worsening risk when they report on such fires.

Despite this, a survey of papers in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah found that coverage of recent wildfires only mentioned the role of climate change about 4.5 percent of the time -- less than half as often as major national papers (9.4 percent). Of state papers that published at least ten articles on wildfires, The Salt Lake Tribune (8 percent), The Denver Post (7 percent) and The Sacramento Bee (7 percent) referenced climate change most often. The Arizona Republic, San Jose Mercury News, U-T San Diego, The Orange County Register, and San Francisco Chronicle did not mention climate change at all in their wildfire coverage.

While media still seem reluctant to put wildfires in the appropriate climate context, evidence indicates the problem is getting worse. A U.S. Geological Survey ecologist recently told The New York Times that “The fire season has lengthened substantially, by two months, over the last 30 years,” and a 2012 Climate Central study found that “The number of large and very large fires on Forest Service land [in Western states] is [increasing] dramatically.” The National Interagency Fire Center has recorded six years with 8 million or more acres burned by fires in the last decade -- the first six such seasons in the department's annals, which go back more than 50 years. In July 2013, Climate Central noted that “Climate models show an alarming increase in large wildfires in the West in coming years.” It is likely that some forests in affected areas won't be able to bounce back.

METHODOLOGY: We searched the Nexis database for articles on (wildfire or wild fire or forest fire) between April 1, 2013, and July 1, 2013. News outlets included in this study were Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona RepublicSacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News, U-T San Diego, The Orange County Register, San Francisco Chronicle, The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette, Albuquerque Journal and Salt Lake Tribune. We only included full articles focused on wildfires, as in previous wildfire studies.