Yes, wildfires are natural phenomena, however, they are getting worse due to climate change. The apocalyptic scenes coming out of California, Oregon, and Washington are a window into the future. The United States, the Russian Arctic, and Australia have all seen the most devastating fires in history over the last decade. Mother nature is ringing the alarm bells, but what can we do to help?
A Brief History of Wildfires
The first wildland firefighters defended Yellowstone National Park in 1886. In 1908 the Forest Fires Emergency Act was created to allocate specific funds for fighting wildfires. From the early days of wildfire fighting the main goal was suppressing fires so they would burn as few acres as possible. In 1967 the concept of prescribed burns was introduced, which is now a key mitigation strategy used. However, it was not until the devastating fires in and around Yellowstone in 1988 that wildland firefighting came into the modern era.
Decades of suppression led to a build-up of smaller fuels littered across the forest floor. In a natural fire cycle, dead trees and branches are dry fuel waiting for ignition. These fires burn until wet weather extinguishes them, or they run out of fuel.
Dealing With the Consequences
Since 1988 the Department of the Interior has been correcting the mistakes of over a decade of fire management. Every year hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands undergo prescribed burns. Communities clear brush around their homes to decrease the risk of fire spread. However, those along with other fire mitigation techniques are proving no match for climate change.
As our climate warms the risk of wildfires increases. Throughout the west, trees are dying from bark beetles. Those trees then become additional fuel for fires. Although bark beetles are not killing trees because of climate change more of them survive the mild winters which are becoming more frequent. In addition, mild winters mean less snowpack for many regions. In the springtime that equates to less water and areas that dry much faster. Warmer summers lead to vegetation drying sooner and faster. Storms are gaining intensity as well which leads to explosive scenarios like those living in the west are currently experiencing.
So, is there anything you can do to help? Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to stop fires from getting worse. However, you can reduce your daily environmental impact and support policies that protect our public lands for generations to come.