US Forest Service analyst: Global warming could be factor in historic wildfires

U.S. Forest Service fire analyst Jon Rieck says he believes in global warming, and says it could have a role in the extensive drought and unseasonably mild weather that continues to fuel Western North Carolina’s forest fires. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

U.S. Forest Service fire analyst Jon Rieck arrived in Asheville from his home state of Montana last Friday. He’s on a 14-day shift, working 12 to 14 hours a week to help crews know where some of the area's largest fires are headed.

But Rieck isn’t afraid to go on the record that he believes in global warming and that it could have a role in the extensive drought and unseasonably mild weather that continues to fuel Western North Carolina’s forest fires.

“We've never seen conditions like this over the climatological record that we use,” said Rieck. “Just the dry fuel conditions. It's unprecedented.”

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Rieck said in his 11-year career, seven as a geospatial analyst, has never had to fly east to work wildfires and help crews gauge where they’re headed.

He said fire seasons across the board are starting earlier and lasting longer, which is why he believes global warming could be a contributing factor due to extensive droughts in various parts of the country.

“We're seeing it on the West Coast, we’re seeing it in the Rocky Mountains, we’re seeing it out on the East Coast,” Rieck said.

He said he’ll spend his Thanksgiving here in North Carolina instead of in Montana.

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While police in McDowell County have reported they may be zeroing in on a suspect who may have started the fires there, Rieck said there is talk among Forest Service officials that many more fires were started intentionally by people who have not yet been caught.

“You know we're not getting lightning, so it's not a natural ignition," he said. "Someone's either intentionally setting them, or just being careless with cigarettes, with ashes.”

Rieck said the Clear Creek fire near Marion could spread to 4,500 acres in the next four days. His job is to aid crews on the ground doing containment lines and other work.

He showed News 13 the wildfire decision support system program he uses on his laptop to chart out wind and weather conditions. This helps him inform crews the fire will likely spread quickly across the forest in the next four days.

While rain is forecast in the next 10 days, Rieck doesn’t believe the rain will put out all the fires in the area. In fact, he has a dire prediction as he looks at long-range forecasts for the Western North Carolina region that indicate warm temperates and below average rain. He said the area is already 20-inches below normal for rainfall.

“Unless we get a lot of moisture, this could go on for months,” Rieck said.

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