Why the Recent Wildfires?
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Explore the history of Smokey Bear wildfire policy and how it laid the groundwork for the megafires in the West today.
Every year we hear about the horrific wildfires across the West Coast of the United States. And each year, it seems the air quality gets worse, more acres burn, more people must pack up their belongings to be ready to evacuate at a moment's notice, and more lives are put at risk. The number of these “megafires,” defined as fires that burn over 100,000 acres of land, has increased drastically in the last two decades. The cause of these massive, devastating fires go much deeper than a gender reveal party gone wrong. In fact, before 1970, very few megafires were recorded in the United States. Meanwhile, the area burned by wildfires has shown a consistent pattern of a 5% increase each year since 1990.
Climate change plays a big role in shaping the fire season in the West. Fires thrive in a hot, dry, windy environment. With 17 of the 18 hottest years on record occurring after 2001, it follows that fires are getting bigger and affecting greater areas. The warmer temperatures brought on by climate change lead to earlier snowmelt and result in drier soils due to increased evaporation. Droughts, another consequence of climate change, also increase the likelihood of fires. Without enough rainfall, vegetation dries out and becomes perfect fuel for a wildfire. Additionally, hotter temperatures and less consistent rainfall leads to a longer fire season, as more days fall into the “high” fire danger category. Some fire experts claim there’s no longer a distinct “fire season,” and that the fires burning on the west coast are now a year-long occurrence.
However, climate change is only one piece of the puzzle to understanding the recent megafires. Another contributing factor is the cultural perception that all fires should be immediately extinguished. During World War II, there was concern of a potential Japanese attack on the West Coast of the United States. People were worried that explosives might spark forest fires that the United States wouldn’t be able to fight off due to rations and a shortage of fire fighting supplies. In 1944, the U.S. The Forest Service created Smokey Bear with the catchphrase “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
The Smokey Bear campaign was effective in raising awareness of the potential dangers of unattended fires. However, it also inadvertently spread the message that all fires are bad. For a while, the impact of Smokey seemed promising: The average number of acres burned by wildfire each year had dropped from 22 million in 1944 to just 6.6 million in 2011. However, without minor fires that clear out smaller trees and vegetation, forests became much more vulnerable to massive fires that have the capacity to wipe out the entire ecosystem. By suppressing these smaller burns, the “Smokey Bear Effect” has been identified as one of the causes of the megafires we see today.
There is now a shifting mentality among firefighters and forest management that we must accept these smaller fires in order to prevent more devastating ones, like the current megafires in the west. But, are we too late? Without the consistency of smaller fires, landscapes are overgrown with highly flammable grasses, which are extremely difficult to manage. Forest management has been working to combat the years of overgrowth by allowing some natural fires to burn within prescribed limits. In theory, these burns will eradicate smaller vegetation and dry grasses without getting out of hand and swallowing the entire forest. That way, when a bigger wildfire does come around, it will have less fuel and will be easier to contain. However, due to the strain put on fire departments to fight off megafires, few resources and little time is left to execute forest management strategies on a large scale.
Prescribed burning is not a new concept. Before European colonization of North America, Indigenous peoples ignited controlled fires annually to clear brush and encourage plant growth. However, when Europeans forcibly removed many tribes from their original land and banned many cultural and religious practices, controlled burning became less common. Colonizers didn’t understand why Native Americans set these fires, thinking that the fires infringed upon the wild landscape of the west. The Western romanticization of wilderness as something untouched by humans didn’t take into account the generations of Indigenous care and burning that sculpted the landscape they saw.
This shift away from controlled burns lasted for hundreds of years, and only recently have fire management authorities returned to the Native American practice of prescribed burns. However, these controlled burns can face serious pushback from the communities. People who live in forest regions don’t necessarily like the thought of fires burning near their homes, both in terms of the smoke they create and the risk of them getting out of hand. Meanwhile, looking back at fire policy mismanagement can help steer the way forward to identify how we can take action to prevent even bigger blazes in the upcoming years.