Western U.S. Increasingly at Risk of Catastrophic Wildfires due to Global Warming

New Era of Wildfires Demands New Approaches to Managing Forests and Fire Risks: Global Warming Linked to Four-fold Increase in Fires, Burning Six Times More Area

08-14-2018 // Aileo Weinmann

WASHINGTON, DC -- "The massive wildfires raging in California this summer are symptomatic of a trend toward more fires burning larger areas in the Western United States over the past few decades," said Dr. Amanda Staudt, climate scientist, National Wildlife Federation.

"Global warming can explain part of this trend," Dr. Staudt said, "because it is feeding longer fire seasons, drier conditions, and more lightning. According to recent studies, the fire season stretches about 78 days longer and individual fires last about 30 days longer."

Increased Risk of Catastrophic Wildfires: Global Warming's Wake-Up Call for the Western United States details how:

  • Global Warming Makes Forests More Susceptible to Fire
  • Past Forest Management Makes Forests More Susceptible to Fire
  • Large Wildfires Put Unnatural Stress on Ecosystems
  • Large Fires Make Global Warming Worse
  • To Reduce Risks and Prepare for Future Fires

Although fire is a natural and beneficial part of many forest ecosystems, the number and intensity of fires today is challenging fire managers and forest communities throughout the West. In 2007, for example, 3.2 million acres burned in the Great Basin region of Utah, Nevada, and Idaho, more than 1.1 million acres burned in the Northern Rockies, and a half million acres burned in Southern California. Combined with more than a million acres that burned in southeastern Georgia and northern Florida earlier that year, 2007 was the second busiest fire season since 1960, with more than 9 million acres burned.

The increase in big wildfires comes with increased losses and escalating costs to fight these fires. Property losses from wildfires have averaged more than $1 billion over the past decade. Annual federal government expenditures on fire fighting in 2007 were $3 billion, up from about $1 billion in 1999, and typically less than half that for the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. The U.S. Forest Service now spends 45 percent of its annual budget on fire prevention and suppression, up from 20 percent in 2000.

Today's new era of more frequent and intense fires demands new approaches to managing our forests and fire risk. "We must get at the root of the problem and reduce the global warming pollution that fuels more frequent and severe fires," Dr. Staudt said. At the same time, it is critical to return our forests to more natural conditions and fire-cycles, step up protections for people and properties, and prepare to jumpstart new forest growth.

National Wildlife Federation is America's conservation organization inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future.

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