Why does the West keep burning? Here are 3 key factors.

“Climate change sucks.” This was the text I sent to a friend last Monday as we griped about the many fires burning throughout the West — from Oregon and Washington to Idaho and my home state of California. The fires have filled the air with visible smoke and invisible fine particulate matter making it unsafe to spend any significant time outside.

My quick text exchange was not the right forum for a detailed articulation of the many causes of this year’s heavy fire season. Neither is the politicized verbal tennis match that has taken off on Twitter and in the news.

On one side of the net, “It’s climate change!” On the other, “It’s lack of forest management!” So which is it?

Several well understood and scientifically established factors have contributed to the volume and intensity of this year’s wildfires. In short, there are three key factors:

1. Climate change.

The summer of 2020 has been a hot one — with many Western states experiencing the hottest August on record. Rising temperatures associated with climate change evaporate more moisture from the ground, drying out the soil and making vegetation more flammable. Winter snowpacks are also melting earlier, making landscapes drier for longer periods of time.

Veteran firefighters I’ve talked to all agree that this year’s fuel load is more parched than ever, leading to unprecedented fire conditions.

As one firefighter put it, “You won’t find any climate deniers on the fire line.”

2. Heavy fuel loads.

Many decades of effective fire suppression in the West, particularly in California, have led to a build-up of flammable brush in forests and woodlands, including small trees, leaf litter, shrubs and dry grass.

We’ve made some efforts to reduce fire risk through thinning and prescribed fire, but the pace and scale has been inadequate. As many are suffering the compounding impacts of COVID-19 and polluted air, we must all seek to better understand the multiple causes of wildfires and take action to address them. Click To Tweet

3. Weather conditions.

While climate describes what the weather is like over a long period of time in a specific area, weather refers to short-term changes in the atmosphere, like the highly unusual lightning storm we experienced here in California in mid-August.

This single weather event ignited dozens of fires, many of which were still burning on September 8 when a second, though predictable, weather event — the dreaded north winds — began blowing with force, spreading the fires out of control.

Similarly unusual weather events have exacerbated fire risks in the Northwest.

How to address our fire problems

The solution set for addressing fires requires a combination of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, improving forest management and learning to better prepare for fire.

This includes reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. It includes thinning and prescribed burns, and restoring burned forests, woodlands and other ecosystems. It also includes an understanding that fire is a natural and often healthy contributor to our Western ecosystems, so we need to build firefighting capacity while also building fire-safe communities that can live with the reality of more fire.

Importantly, we need to help these communities adapt by ensuring everyone has access to healthy indoor air quality. The poor and elderly are disproportionately suffering the compounding impacts of COVID-19 and polluted air.

There’s never been a more pressing need to set political theater aside and address our fire problems to create a healthier, more resilient future.

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  1. Mike Brown
    Posted September 21, 2020 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    What is meant by controlled burning? I hear so many people back East say to me -“well it’s because California doesn’t have controlled burning.” I tell them it’s virtually impossible to do on steep terrain and mountains- am I right?

    • Eric Holst, EDF
      Posted September 30, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Controlled burns (also called prescribed fire) are a critical tool in reducing fuel loads and improving the health of many forests, especially in the West. For most of the last 100 years, fire suppression has been the norm resulting in dangerous build-up of fuels in many forests and woodlands in the West. Ecologists and Foresters in the US southeast and in Yosemite National Park pioneered the practice of reintroducing fire into forested landscapes during the 70s and 80s and the practice of prescribed fire is growing, although at a slow rate. Much more is needed. Steep slopes present a challenge for prescribed burning but it can be done and in fact is one of the few alternatives to reducing fuels in these inaccessible places. The key is to do so at the right time and during the right weather and moisture conditions – generally in the late fall and early spring. The biggest barriers to greater application of prescribed fire include air quality restrictions, funding, and fear on the part of landowners (including public agencies) of legal liability. Perhaps the biggest barrier is the general cultural aversion to fire. But as the last decade has shown us, we have a choice of whether to accept far more well-timed, highly controlled prescribed burns or frequent and uncontrollable catastrophic fires.