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Severe wildfires in the West may already be altering the future of forests

Severe wildfires across the American West may already be altering the future of forests there.

The big picture: Fires are catalyzing changes in forests already under pressure from climate change. Scientists are trying to determine how forests are responding and whether they can be rebuilt to withstand future fires and combat climate change.


Driving the news: California has now seen the highest number of acres — about 2.5 million — burned in a single season on modern record. And the season still has several months to go.

  • More problematic, though, is that recent fires are increasingly severe, completely burning larger numbers of trees, and expanding rapidly, says climate scientist Daniel Swain of the University of California, Los Angeles.
  • The Bear Fire in Northern California grew by an estimated 230,000 acres in just 24 hours this week.
  • Strong offshore winds arrived on Tuesday morning, further increasing the risk of rapid fire spread.
  • "Things could get worse before they get better, especially in California, Oregon and Washington. The rainy season in California is at least a couple months out, and offshore wind season is just beginning and is early and it could last through November," Swain says.

What's happening: A potent mix of climate change and dense forests — the latter partially the product of nearly a century of fire suppression — is resulting in an abundance of drier vegetation that can fuel fires.

  • The window for fires is increasing as the fire season lengthens, starting earlier in the spring with premature snowmelt and stretching longer into the fall due to a delayed rainy season.
  • And within that window, the frequency of autumn days in California with extreme fire weather more than doubled since the early 1980s, according to a recent analysis by Swain.
  • More dense, dry fuel means more severe fires with trees — and their seeds — burning in their entirety.
  • And more land is burning and viable seeds from areas that don’t burn can’t be dispersed far enough to recolonize large areas.

One result: Fewer forests are naturally reestablishing after fires.

  • A recent study of forests in the Southern Rocky Mountains projects this trend will continue, even under an unlikely scenario where carbon emissions are significantly curbed during the next 20 years.

"We need to talk more about how to reforest these areas that burn in megafires," says forest ecologist Julia Burton of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

  • Reforestation efforts should include planting lower tree densities but also pattern-planting seedlings in widely spaced clumps so there is less continuity of fuels to carry fires, she says, adding that the composition of species replanted is key as well.
  • "You could make climate change worse if you plant the wrong forest in the wrong place. You could make fires worse if you plant the wrong forest in the wrong place," Swain says.

But climate change itself is affecting what types of trees can be established and where after fires.

  • Trees can't migrate to cooler, moister elevations fast enough to keep pace with changes in climate.
  • "In the Western U.S. where there is significant drying, the potential land area where you could support trees is dwindling because of climate change," says Matthew Hurteau, who studies the effects of climate change and fire on forests at the University of New Mexico.
  • "The range of climatic conditions a mature tree can tolerate is much wider than a seedling or juvenile," he says. "If wildfire comes through and kills off mature trees, you can’t get the same species to establish because it is too dry and warm."

What to watch: Replanting trees is expensive — about $500–$1,000 an acre (the Camp Fire of 2018 would cost about $75 million to reforest). It takes several years for the seedlings to be grown in nurseries and lots of labor for them to be planted.

  • DroneSeed, which works with the Nature Conservancy, timber companies, small private landowners and others, is trying to scale such efforts by dropping seeds housed in vessels from large drones, which allows them to plant large areas faster.

The bottom line: "When we’re going to plant trees, our goal and question should be what is the right tree and the right place for the year 2100," Hurteau says. "And the answer may be no tree."

Biden: The next president should decide on Ginsburg’s replacement

Joe Biden is calling for the winner of November's presidential election to select Ruth Bader Ginsburg's replacement on the Supreme Court.

What he's saying: "[L]et me be clear: The voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider," Biden said. "This was the position the Republican Senate took in 2016 when there were almost 10 months to go before the election. That's the position the United States Senate must take today, and the election's only 46 days off.

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Biden: "Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood for the law"

Joe Biden said Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg "never failed, she was fierce and unflinching in her pursuit of civil and legal right and civil rights of everyone," after learning of her death Friday night.

What he's saying: Biden gave a statement after traveling to Delaware from Minnesota, where, earlier Friday, he gave a campaign speech at a carpenters’ training center in Hermantown, a suburb of Duluth. She was "not only a giant in the legal profession, but a beloved figure, and my heart goes out to all those who cared for her and cared about her."

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Trump: Ruth Bader Ginsburg "led an amazing life"

President Trump said Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg "led an amazing life," after he finished a campaign rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, and learned of her death.

What he's saying: "I’m sad to hear,” Trump told the press pool before boarding Air Force One. "She was an amazing woman, whether you agree or not, she was an amazing woman who led an amazing life."

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Trump to move fast to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

President Trump will move within days to nominate his third Supreme Court justice in just three-plus short years — and shape the court for literally decades to come, top Republican sources tell Axios.

Driving the news: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are ready to move to confirm Trump's nominee before Election Day, just 46 days away, setting up one of the most consequential periods of our lifetimes, the sources say.

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What they're saying: Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a "tireless and resolute champion of justice"

Democratic and Republican lawmakers along with other leading figures paid tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Friday night at age 87.

What they're saying: “Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature," Chief Justice John Roberts said. "We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died at 87.

Why it matters: Ginsburg had suffered from serious health issues over the past few years, including cancer. Her death sets up a fight over filling a Supreme Court seat with less than 50 days until the election.

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NYT: White House drug price negotiations between broke down over $100 "Trump Cards"

Negotiations on a deal between the White House and pharmaceutical industry to lower drug prices broke down last month after Mark Meadows, the president's chief of staff, insisted that drugmakers pay for $100 cash cards to be mailed to seniors before the election, according to the New York Times.

Why it matters: Some of the drug companies feared that in agreeing to the prescription cards — reportedly dubbed "Trump Cards" by some in the pharmaceutical industry — they would boost Trump's political standing weeks ahead of Election Day with voters over 65, a group that is crucial to the president's reelection bid, per the Times.

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In photos: Virginians line up for hours on first day of early voting

In some parts of Virginia, people waited in line up to four hours to cast their ballots on the first day of early voting, according to the Washington Post.

The big picture: The COVID-19 pandemic seems to already have an impact on how people cast their votes this election season. As many as 80 million Americans are expected to vote early, by mail or in person, Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm, told Axios in August.

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