What Keeps the Home Fires Burning? Causes and Implications of Wildfire Intensification in the American West

By Patrick Wise

In recent years, wildfires have wrought havoc across the American West.  Each year, flames tear through hundreds of thousands of acres and destroy thousands of structures; some years, scores of individuals lose their lives.  In California, the 2017 Tubbs Fire and 2018 Camp Fire set back-to-back, ignominious records for the most destructive fires in state history.  And this duet of record-setting blazes was no one-off occurrence – wildfires out West have become increasingly larger and more intense over the past four decades.

Following these natural disasters, many onlookers seek an explanation for the increasing intensity of wildfires in recent years. Perhaps most notably, President Trump recently blamed California for poor forest management practices leading to deadlier fires. Likewise, other Republican politicians argue that a reduction in forest logging has created the conditions that allow such intense fires.  They claim that a decrease in logging on National Forest land has occurred simultaneously with an increase in the number of acres of forest burned by wildfire each year. 

But that spurious correlation fails to account for the increase in the intensity, economic damages, and loss of life associated with wildfires over the past half-century.  Scientists and media outlets pushed back against those blaming a lack of logging, often citing climate change as an alternative explanation for the issue.

These sources are right – at least in part.  Scientific studies have repeatedly linked larger wildfires to earlier snowmelt and longer, drier drought seasons caused by climate change. In fact, the USDA (which manages the National Forests) already acknowledges the vast risk posed by climate change, and has published scientific reports finding fire risks increase nearly six-fold for every degree Celsius of warming in a region.

But there’s more to the equation than just the climate; people’s decisions to live in areas on the verge of wild landscapes – and governments’ willingness to allow such development – puts people’s homes and property directly in harm’s way.  A recent study of land-use planning found that residences abutting wildlands that are spread further apart face greater risk of ignition from wildfire.  As this trend toward greater suburban sprawl continues, development spreads further into the wildland and more households expose themselves to fire risk.  And this problem isn’t going away; development is expected to continue into these dangerous regions, potentially driving expenditures for firefighting upwards of $4 billion per year – nearly the entire annual budget of the Forest Service.

Making matters worse, when development in these regions occurs, it often fails to incorporate best practices for structural resistance to fire.  Extensive research by scientists at the Forest Service has repeatedly demonstrated the effectiveness of designing homes to protect against embers spewed by remote fires and maintaining a buffer zone around buildings to prevent their ignition by nearby flames.  But despite its potential to save people’s homes and lives, decision-makers and stakeholder agencies have largely disregarded this research in favor of a greater focus on fire suppression efforts.

Ironically, these suppression efforts created the conditions causing intense burns today.  Many forests have become overgrown with dense, young, fire-prone underbrush as a result of a long history of suppressing wildfires in places where they naturally occur as part of a fire-dependent ecosystem.  To President Trump’s credit, proper forest management practices (namely thinning and planned burning) reduce the density of this problematic vegetation, in turn reducing the occurrence of wildfires. However, the public benefits of forest thinning apply mostly to backcountry fires that do not directly threaten many people’s homes or lives.  

It should also be noted that these practices are a far cry from the traditional logging operations advocated by Republican leaders. Unfortunately for the lumber industry, effective underbrush clearing won’t be as lucrative as previous operations harvesting the large, fire-resistant trees that the industry prefers. But some firms are already transitioning to marketing the products of brush clearing, and there’s plenty of opportunity (read: 80 million acres of federal land in need of treatment) for those companies willing to make the switch.

As with most things, no single approach or actor is going to fix this problem.  Though thoughtful debate can lead to better public understanding of the complexity of this issue, no single factor should be used to distract from the need for a coordinated policy solution.  Responsibility here falls on both state and federal government.  Locally, governments should adjust zoning laws to disincentivize development into regions with the greatest fire risk and set codes requiring structures in such areas to employ fire resistance strategies.  Federally, the USDA, Bureau of Land Management, and other stewards of national lands should embrace proper forest management practices to reduce the risk of backcountry fires spreading over greater areas.  And at both levels, institutions should adopt climate change mitigation strategies to slow (and ultimately reverse) the devastating environmental effects of carbon emissions.  If these changes are adopted, the result will be mutually beneficial – everyone stands to gain from safer communities, healthier forests, and a more sustainable logging industry.