Wildfire and Causation: Climate Change or Disaster Policy?

 Firefighting in Utah.  Photo: US Army.

Firefighting in Utah.  Photo: US Army.

Wildfires are in the news again after portions of Idaho, Washington, and California were ravaged by high intensity fires this month.  Which means it's time for another reminder that climate change is to blame.  Here's The Guardian's Char Miller:

What [firefighters] have encountered on the firelines in the past few years is evidence that everything has changed as a result of global warming [...] Temperatures that spike above long-held norms, record-breaking low-humidity levels, multi-year droughts, tinder-dry vegetation and fierce winds are among the factors fueling these new, more massive infernos. The sooner that firefighting agencies, public officials, policymakers and citizens acknowledge the impact that climate change is having on the frequency, intensity, duration and behavior of fire, the sooner that they will begin to develop new responses to wildland fire in the US west."

Climate change is one of the factors.  But is it the most significant factor?  Perhaps more importantly, is it the factor that firefighters and land management agencies should be paying the most attention to?  Agencies and policymakers may not need to "develop new responses" if revisiting an old one is available instead.

Last year I wrote an article about disaster law in the US, in which I argued that the climate change debate is obscuring the fact that our current disaster laws - such as wildfire policy - aren't close to providing resilience to begin with (that article was published online this summer, see here).  While the focus today is on climate change, and how it exacerbates wildfire risk, there are other causal factors that wouldn't be as massively challenging to address.   First among those is a predilection for firefighting that, over the past hundred years or so, has been successful in putting out the small, low-intensity fires that were common in North America when the best defense was fire prevention or adaptation.  These small fires would clear vegetative growth and provide breathing room for forests.  After a century of firefighting, our forests are now choked with vegetation, providing the perfect conditions for the large, high-intensity fires we are seeing today.  Take a look at this chart showing trends in wildfires and acres burned:

 Chart produced from data provided by the National Inter-Agency Fire Center.

Chart produced from data provided by the National Inter-Agency Fire Center.

A wildfire policy of firefighting has been successful in reducing fire frequency, but has resulted in an increase in acres burned.  Putting out small fires only builds up the fuel needed to create the big ones that firefighters are helpless to stop.  Firefighting agencies may not be able to solve climate change, but they can adjust their strategic priorities to favor more fire prevention and proscribed burns (policies that have been around for a while) instead of relying on firefighting quite so heavily.  Climate change may make things worse no matter what, but a second look at our disaster laws might show that a basic change in approach might go a long way toward building resilience.  

 Wildfire in Yellowstone National Park.  Photo: National Park Service.

Wildfire in Yellowstone National Park.  Photo: National Park Service.