Surge In Wildfire Frequency And Intensity Threatens US Forests

Photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Services via Flickr

“Only you can prevent forest fires,” Smokey the Bear reminds potential fire-starters and stoppers at every chance he gets. It’s his only job.

Smokey has a point, considering an entire 90 percent of wildfires are indeed started by humans. And in spite of a 71 year career, in 2015, western states in the US are suffering record damage from widespread wildfires, even in cooler weather.

Here’s what you should know about the west’s rampant wildfires, and what, if anything, can be done to amplify Smokey’s message while minimizing the smoke.

How they start

Humans are, in 9 out of 10 cases, responsible for wildfires, according to the National Park Services. But it’s not typically a purposeful, radical act against nature — it’s largely accidental. Campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, and improperly discarded cigarettes are just some of the ways humans set forests aflame.

[contextly_sidebar id=”rnDd8iSJrlE0Rc1MB2cM8lYIawQn9kMS”]The other 10 percent of wildfires are caused by lightning, lava, or other natural circumstances. Lightning, which strikes the Earth 100,000 times a day, will can start a fire 10 to 20 percent of the time.  

Both natural and human-caused fires, though, are made worse by the circumstances of weather and climate — dry air, heat waves, and drought make for vulnerable environment, and fast-moving wind atop trees helps to spread fires.

For eons, wildfires were natural occurring events necessary in clearing underbrush for forests to help trees spread their seeds. But a policy of fire suppression over the last century has allowed underbrush buildup and forest density, fodder for more intense, tree-killing fires.

Extent of the damage

About 1.2 million acres of US woodland burns every year, but in 2015, the National Interagency Fire Center reports, more than 9 million acres have burned already. Five million acres were burned in Alaska alone; in California, thousands of homes have been destroyed.

Wildfires are setting records for economic cost, too: the US Forest Service has spent $1.2 billion fighting fires in 2015 — approaching the 2002 record of $1.65 billion (adjusted for inflation). That’s not including local or state costs.

Wildfire season is also longer lasting, at about 78 days longer than it did1970, starting two months early in the spring before peaking in the early Fall.

Luckily for animals, most are able to escape wildfires with plenty of time.

Fighting the flames

As Smokey knows too well, it’s easier to prevent a fire than it is to stop one. Fire fighters and volunteers — including prisoners — are using every resource available to suppress the flames.

These resources are costly — for example, in California, half of the entire Forest Service budget was used up on fires alone, up from 16 percent, plus an additional $700 million borrowed.

Fire fighters also face another challenge: civilian drones. In multiple cases, they’ve had to halt their missions to avoid collision with private drones scoping out the fires from above.
As for the aftermath, it’s unfortunate for the planet that we’re left with less trees and slow forest recovery. Researchers speculate that thinning forests could prevent fires from killing trees, a proactive approach that, though helpful, could end up being too little too late.


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Jennifer Markert