The West is on Fire: why our forests are burning and what we can do about it

The West is on Fire: why our forests are burning and what we can do about it

By: Kelsey Maxwell, 2020 Naturalist

The Western United States is experiencing one of the most catastrophic wildfire seasons in history. Entire communities have been decimated, at least 35 people and countless wild animals have been killed, and millions of Americans are suffering the consequences of hazardous air quality. 

So far, 6.7 million acres have burned across the United States. That’s equivalent to about three Frank Church Wildernesses or 1/8th the total area of Idaho. In California alone, one in every thirty three acres has burned. 

The Fire Weather and Avalanche Center has an interactive map that shows all active fires across the country. There are currently 1,809 active fires in the U.S. Explore more here:

Idaho has been incredibly lucky to have avoided most of this devastation. But when we wake up every morning to smoke that has traveled hundreds of miles to reach our doorstep, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we have a serious problem on our hands. 

The increasing frequency and severity of forest fires is a human caused problem. Climate change, the increased development of wildland, and a history of fire suppression are all to blame. 

Climate Change

We are changing our global climate, this should not be new news to anyone. But it’s important to note that the Western U.S. is warming faster than many other places. Average temperatures in the Western U.S. have increased about 2 degrees in the last 40 years as opposed to the global average of 1.8 degrees. 

This rapid warming means earlier snowmelt, less precipitation, drier vegetation, and ultimately, more high-intensity wildfires. Fires that burn hotter, longer, and larger roast the soil, stripping the ecosystem of the seed sources and nutrients that are critical for forest regeneration. Oftentimes, these high-intensity fires pave the way for drought-tolerant and fire-prone grasses and shrubs to take over. This feedback loop ultimately increases the threat of wildfires and contributes to climate change. 

Graphic created by Union of Concerned Scientists

Development of Wildland

Most wildfires are directly caused by humans, especially in regions where forests and communities meet. These areas are called the wildlife-urban interface, and they are growing rapidly across the Western U.S. The growth of the wildlife-urban interface is a threat to both humans and our wild ecosystems. 

A study recently published found that humans were responsible for starting 97% of fires in wildland-urban interfaces between 1992 and 2015. Smokey Bear’s words of wisdom still ring true today – unattended campfires, firework celebrations, and cigarette butts endanger the forest and Smokey’s forest friends. 

If the wildlife-urban interface continues to expand, wildfires will likely become more frequent and continue to threaten vulnerable communities. 

This map developed by the U.S. Forest Service shows the wildland-urban interface.

A History of Fire Suppression 

From the 1910’s to the 1970’s, the U.S. Forest Service suppressed all wildfires. They believed that the fires destroyed forest ecosystems and valuable timber. Sixty years of fire suppression starved these ecosystems of critical nutrients, leaving them sick and more vulnerable to high-intensity fires. 

The Forest Service introduced Smokey Bear in 1944, to help promote the suppression and prevention of wildfires.

Now that it is widely understood that small and frequent low-intensity fires are a natural and productive part of many coniferous ecosystems, foresters have spent the last fifty years trying to restore the damage caused by wildfire suppression. 

Unfortunately, we are too little and too late. The growth of the wildland-urban interface is making it nearly impossible to let wildfires burn freely. The U.S. Forest service is spending more and more time and money saving communities from devastation and less time preventing fires in the first place. The share of the Forest Service’s budget devoted to fighting fires has risen from 15% to 55%, leaving less money for restoration and prevention projects. 

Of course, climate change is serving to exacerbate all of these problems. Restoring the health of our forests and rangelands in the face of a rapidly changing climate will require an all-out Blitzkrieg.

What we can do about it  

Help Prevent Forest Fires 

Everyone who lives and recreates in regions that are prone to wildfires should be educated on the ways to prevent fires. If you already consider yourself an expert on this topic, educate others (and read the tips listed below anyways because you might learn something new)! 

Here are somethings you should never do in a fire-prone area:

  • Never leave an outdoor fire unattended – if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave! 
  • Never throw a cigarette butt or ash on the ground embers can spread for miles!
  • Never burn toilet paper – throw it away or pack it out! 
  • Never drive your car over dry grass or shrubs – leave only footprints, not tire tracks and rangeland fires!
  • Never set off fireworks – celebrate this land by loving it, not lighting it on fire!
  • Never leave candles burning or unattended – don’t be that person that brings candles to a hot spring! 

Support Policies that Address Wildfires

We need to change our relationship with the land. Some of these changes can start with good local, state, and national policy.

Here are examples of fire prevention and protection strategies being discussed by policymakers that you should consider supporting: 

  • Require new structures to be fire resistant in fire-prone areas 
  • Develop fire safety guidelines and wildfire emergency preparedness plans
  • Allocate more money for wildfire prevention and restoration projects 
  • Increase oversight of electric utilities to prevent wildfires ignited by utility infrastructure 
  • Expand scientific research on wildfires and the urban-wildland interface 

Lastly, supporting policies and politicians that seek to combat climate change will be critical to addressing the West’s wildfire crisis. We are feeling the impacts of climate change. It’s undeniable. Vote for the policies and people that are dedicated to protecting the people and the places that we love.

Articles Referenced: