Wildfire Epidemic

Naturally occurring wildfires are an important part of many ecosystems. The US National Parks Service states that some landscapes “…depend on fire to maintain the ecosystem’s stability and diversity…” For example, “Fire in ponderosa pine forests, as in Chaparral communities, serves to replace older plants with younger ones of the same species. Historically, fires in ponderosa pine communities burned naturally on a cycle of one every 5 – to 25-years.”

However, a new study shows that an overwhelming majority of wildfires aren’t natural. Researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Earth Lab have concluded that “…human-ignited wildfires accounted for 84 percent of all wildfires, tripling the length of the average fire season and accounting for nearly half of the total acreage burned.”

In 2015 alone, fires destroyed 10 million acres of wildlands in the US, and an additional 5.5 million burned last year. But trees aren’t the only things in the path of these disasters. Buildings, including homes, are often engulfed in these flames. Human and animal lives are also endangered by wildfires. Additionally, the cost of fighting the fires is steep, exceeding $2 billion in recent years.

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Don’t Blame Smokey

So, what human actions are to blame for these fires? According to Doyle Rice of the USA Today, Independence Day is unsurprisingly the biggest day for wildfires. The study showed that 7,762 wildfires started on July 4th over the course of 21 years. Debris burning contributed to 29 percent of these fires, equipment use clocked in with eleven percent, and campfires and children each accounted for five percent,

Malicious intent or negligence are not the only ways that humans contribute to forest fires. Expert Thomas Swetnam also blames human-fueled climate change as a contributing factor. Longer droughts, warmer temperatures, and shorter winters all contribute to lengthening wildfire season. According to Swetnam, “We have known for a long time that fires set by people are an extremely important factor in the wildfire problems, but this study shows in detail how important people are in lengthening the fire season and contributing to increasing numbers of large wildfires.”

Smokey the Bear’s age old adage has never been more true. “Only you can prevent forest fires.”