×

How years of fighting every wildfire helped fuel the Western megafires of today

The Cedar Creek Fire burns in Washington’s Methow Valley in late July 2021. Jessica Kelley

How years of fighting every wildfire helped fuel the Western megafires of today

The Cedar Creek Fire burns in Washington’s Methow Valley in late July 2021. Jessica Kelley

How years of fighting every wildfire helped fuel the Western megafires of today

The Cedar Creek Fire burns in Washington’s Methow Valley in late July 2021. Jessica Kelley

How years of fighting every wildfire helped fuel the Western megafires of today

The Cedar Creek Fire burns in Washington’s Methow Valley in late July 2021. Jessica Kelley

Is climate change fueling these fires? Does the long history of fighting every fire play a role? Should we leave more fires to burn? What can be done about Western forests’ vulnerability to wildfires and climate change?

The Cedar Creek Fire burns in Washington’s Methow Valley in late July 2021. Jessica Kelley

Susan J. Prichard, University of Washington; Keala Hagmann, University of Washington, and Paul Hessburg, United States Forest Service

After so many smoke-filled summers and record-setting burns, residents of Western North America are no strangers to wildfires. Still, many questions are circulating about why forest fires are becoming larger and more severe – and what can be done about it.

Is climate change fueling these fires? Does the long history of fighting every fire play a role? Should we leave more fires to burn? What can be done about Western forests’ vulnerability to wildfires and climate change?

We invited 40 fire and forest ecologists living across the Western U.S. and Canada to examine the latest research and answer these questions in a set of studies published Aug. 2, 2021. Collectively, we are deeply concerned about the future of Western forests and communities under climate change.

So, why are wildfires getting worse?

Climate change is a big part of it. Summer wildfire seasons are already 40 to 80 days longer on average than they were 30 years ago. Annual droughts are more pronounced, making it easier for fuels to dry out and fires to ignite and spread. Extreme weather events, marked by dry fuels, lightning storms and strong winds, are also increasingly common and provide essential ingredients for rapid fire growth, as witnessed by the Bootleg Fire burning in Oregon and record-setting fires in California and Colorado in 2020.

Ironically, a chronic lack of fire in Western landscapes also contributes to increased fire severity and vulnerability to wildfires. It allows dry brush and live and dead trees to build up, and with more people living in wildland areas to spark blazes, pressure to fight every forest fire has increased the risk of extreme fire.

Disagree with this article?
Create an Opposing View
Add Related Article