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Wildfires Are Becoming More Frequent, and Humans Are Responsible

How should we address the growing incidence of wildfires?

by Countable | 11.15.18

As California continues to endure the deadliest wildfire in its history, decades of data show that declared natural disasters are becoming more frequent, especially fires and severe storms.

Details

According to our partners at USAFacts, a non-partisan, not-for-profit civic initiative aimed at making government data accessible and understandable, natural disasters have increased in frequency since 1980.

Between 1980 and 1989, there were an average of 25.2 disaster declarations per year. By contrast, in the last ten years (2008 to 2017), we have declared 121.3 disasters on average per year.

The most significant recent increases in disasters have been from fires, which reached a high point in 2011 due to several wildfires in Texas and California.

Since 1980, USAFacts shows, these five states had the most declared disasters:

  • California – 245
  • Texas – 222
  • Oklahoma – 151
  • Washington – 121
  • Florida –111

According to USAFacts, between 2005 and 2016 (the most recent year for which comprehensive data are available), the states that received the most in disaster aid were:

  • Louisiana – $26.0 billion
  • New York – $23.0 billion
  • Texas – $9.0 billion
  • California – $6.3 billion
  • Mississippi – $5.7 billion

However, the 2017 and 2018 hurricane and fire seasons are likely to have altered these averages, with a high number of disasters that disproportionately affected California, Florida, Georgia, and Puerto Rico, among other states and territories.

Insurers had to pay claims of around $135 billion for 2017, the most ever, following a spate of hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires in North America.

Causes of increased wildfires

Climate change

Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the western U.S. These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started by lightning strikes or human error, they will be more intense and longer-burning.

Federal Forest Service projections show that an annual temperature increase of just 1 degree Celsius would increase the median burned area per year by as much as 600 percent in some types of forests.

Recent evidence from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, published in 2016, suggests that human-caused climate change is one of the primary drivers of the increase in wildfires.

Electric infrastructure

According to The New York Times:

“Many fires in recent years have been caused by downed power lines serving California’s utilities. State officials have determined that electrical equipment owned by [Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E)], including power lines and poles, was responsible for at least 17 of 21 major fires in Northern California last fall. In eight of those cases, they referred the findings to prosecutors over possible violations of state law.
“Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the deadliest of the current blazes, known as the Camp Fire, which has killed at least 56 people and destroyed virtually the entire town of Paradise, about 90 miles north of Sacramento. PG&E disclosed in a regulatory filing on Tuesday that an outage and damage to a transmission tower were reported in the area shortly before the fire started last week.”

Inadequate forest and community management

The U.S. suppresses 95 percent of all wildfires, at great cost and with questionable efficacy. According to The Wall Street Journal:

“About 57% of California forestland is owned by the federal government while most of the rest is private land regulated by the state… Once upon a time the U.S. Forest Service’s mission was to actively manage the federal government’s resources. Yet numerous laws over the last 50 years, including the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act, have hampered tree-clearing, controlled burns and timber sales on federal land.
“California also restricts timber harvesting and requires myriad permits and environmental-impact statements to prune overgrown forests. As the state Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) dryly noted in April, ‘project proponents seeking to conduct activities to improve the health of California’s forests indicate that in some cases, state regulatory requirements can be excessively duplicative, lengthy, and costly.’”

The Atlantic published a lengthy article a few months ago detailing how human technology is responsible for more loss from fire than any other cause, noting that reducing fire’s impact will require changes to how people live, and not just to the infrastructure that lets them do so. The piece essentially reveals that there’s no easy fix.

What do you think?

How should we address the growing incidence of wildfires? Tell your reps what you think, then share your thoughts below.

—Sara E. Murphy

(Photo Credit: iStock.com / FrozenShutter

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(53)
  • Carol
    11/15/2018
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    Climate change is real and we are already paying for it in insurance costs and disaster relief. If we can strategically devote energy to ecological improvement, our actions may be able to prevent future environmental and human disintegration. We’re paying anyway, let’s make an educated decision toward improvement.

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  • KansasTamale
    11/15/2018
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    For those who are confused, you did not read the entire article. It explains that CLIMATE CHANGE - which is caused by what people are doing to our environment - is the cause. Califonia used to be wet & humid. Now it’s dry & the trees are dried out. JUST A SPARK can start a fire & the Santa Ana winds are worse, so they cause it to spread. Check it out: Climate change Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the western U.S. These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started by lightning strikes or human error, they will be more intense and longer-burning.

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  • Alcyon
    11/15/2018
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    Do you really want to return to those “good old days” before we had environmental laws regulating logging on our national forests? There’s a reason we have the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act. It’s because people were wise enough, back when these laws were passed, to recognize that humans don’t know everything and any significant management actions (including logging and road building) should be carefully evaluated to make sure other resources (like wildlife, streams, soils, rare plants etc.) aren’t harmed. Do you really want to go back to the time when these laws didn’t exist and clear-cutting was rampant? In many cases, it’s these previously logged forests that are now more susceptible to high-severity fire than intact, never-logged forests. You can use euphemisms like “forest health” and “forest management” and “thinning” and “pruning,” but what these mean is road-building, logging, massive human manipulation of natural ecosystems. And their efficacy for controlling wildfire is all over the map—it depends mainly on wind and drought conditions at the time the wildfire occurs, and it also depends on how long it’s been since the “treatment” was done. After a decade or two, generally a lot of vegetation has grown back, in the form of even more flammable shrubs and small dense trees. Fires often roar right through previously “treated” forest. Our focus should be on doing everything we possibly can to limit climate change, preventing construction of new homes in highly fire-prone locations, and making existing structures as fireproof as possible—not on vastly increasing logging of our wild public lands.

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  • Dana
    11/15/2018
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    I am horrified by how many climate change denial comments I am seeing here. IT’S SCIENCE! This much ignorance is dangerous and terrifying.

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  • Tom
    11/15/2018
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    Humans are responsible when places like California don’t manage their forests and clean them up by allowing limited forestry cleanup. When Man does not tKe care of millions of acres of timber this happens. Clean up dead and old die undergrowth, or keep having fires. As a former firefighter I and other firefighters know this to be true. If I lived in California I would move from that awful State

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  • ConservativeGuy
    11/15/2018
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    A Mexican living in Kansas thinks that CA used to be wet and humid. Wondering if he has any evidence of that.

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  • SteveMabley
    11/15/2018
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    People are definately contributors: By... causing global warming; making power lines less resilient than they could be; promoting/allowing development in dry, hard-to- access wildlands; adopting forest management practices that discourage use of fire to manage forest fuel levels; and failure to set mandatory preventive measures for rural and suburban property owners.

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  • David
    11/16/2018
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    Sure humans are responsible, draconian restrictions on land management have lead to powder kegs of dry dead wood accumulating in our nation’s forests. One spark and the whole forest erupts in flames. Return to common sense land management, put people first!

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  • JTJ
    11/15/2018
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    FAKE NEWS severe storms are happening at the same rate they have for hundreds of years. As for fires, get rid of all the environmental regulations and allow the forests to be maintained.

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  • James
    11/15/2018
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    What Dummy made that statement! Yes! Left wing goofballs that placed irresponsible environmental laws are responsible! When you have dead growth you clean it up! How hard is that?

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  • Jessica
    11/16/2018
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    195 countries are part of the Paris climate agreement. The following two countries are the only nations in the entire world that continue to debate scientific fact: Syria and the United States of America. This is what it has come to. The former superpower which famously sent the first man to the moon is now so anti-scientific progress that our only climate change ally is Bashar al-Assad. It’s shameful. Can we please return to leading the world on progressive policy and technology, rather than trailing 50-100 years behind everyone else?

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  • Jeffrey
    11/15/2018
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    I’m confused as to how humans are responsible for starting fires unless they actually set a fire or threw out a cigarette butt. And storms? How are humans possibly responsible for storms unless they are GOD, which last time I looked no one is god even if he/she thinks they are...I’m overwhelmed with the amount of ignorance I’m seeing lately 🧐

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  • Tooluser1
    11/15/2018
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    California deliberately CHOSE not to manage their forrest's because it isn't "natural". You know what is natural? Wildfires. Stupid, shortsighted decisions in the name of environmentalism have consequences.

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  • Robert
    11/15/2018
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    To a certain degree we are responsible, however, drought = tinder dry fuel, Santa Ana winds are annual.

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  • Marc
    11/15/2018
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    First, massive legislation and budget improvements to fight climate change and second, a domestic summit on how to prepare for and mitigate future environmental emergencies

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  • Marjorie
    11/16/2018
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    Before you just criticize the State of California for mismanagement, why don’t you get the facts on how much money the state is putting into brush and tree management? They’ve increased the amount of money towards management. The federal government, holding more forest land in CA than any other entity, has decreased and diverted funds from management. If you want to point fingers, then point them at the federal government. Is California wet and humid? Certainly it is during the rainy season! Come visit during the early spring to see the vernal pools and the wetlands (yes, California has wetlands). But now the rainy seasons are shorter and more sporadic leading to the forests and meadowlands drying out more rapidly and completely. These super dry conditions lead to fast, hot fires as there aren’t the moister spots to slow the fire down. Climate change has exacerbated the dry conditions, so mega fires are more common. Climate change isn’t the only culprit, but it is a major factor. Sadly, it doesn’t look like it is going to improve, so we are going to have to make hard choices on how to live in an increasingly dry climate. But that would probably require, gasp, more regulations and zoning ordinances! Just allowing logging companies to clear cut forests (and chaparral land is of no interest to logging companies) and walking away isn’t going to work as the new growth is the most likely to burn.

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  • UnapologeticallyAmerican
    11/15/2018
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    The reality is the only prevention is fire. This really is a time you fight fire with fire. We have known this for decades, that setting prescribed fires and letting small fires burn out is the only solution to clearing large areas of brush and preventing these massive and devastating fires. The forest service knows this, the fire departments know this, ecologists know this. It is a fundamental part of modern ecological sciences and forestry managment. The problem is we have been in massive cycles of droughts that make this very difficult, we have not had a reprieve that really allows for the use of prescribed fires, or to let smaller fires go… they all have deadly potential now during a drought. And it will always be difficult from a political standpoint; who wants to see their town’s beautiful countryside blackened for a decade, before it regrows? And that is the root cause, decades of fire prevention that got us here. We spent over 50 years putting every single fire in sight out because that is what people wanted. But that just made it worse decades down the road when undergrowth builds up, a drought is active, and a fire hits those areas and can’t be controlled. What the President said is correct. California needs to up its game on prevention or these fires will continue.

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  • Vickie
    11/15/2018
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    From a family of foresters, wildfire fighters, wildfire science majors, you can blame global warming, increase population or whatever, it comes down to what kind of forest management plans do we need to 1.prevent fires 2. Control fires, once it has started, from burning thousands of acres, 3. Evacuate in a way to minimize loss of life 4. Have Resources readily available Cleaning brush and slash, responsible logging helps keep forests clean and allows easier access to fires. Power lines and poles need to be cleared of trees with dirt surrounding them to decrease; large fire breaks need to be created between developments. When working on lines, power trucks need to be equipped with a fire hose and tank with trained personal to stop an initial fire. Loggers are required to have this when they are logging, why not power trucks, if history shows fires have started from their work? These are common sense things- people with real experience,not hampered with do-gooder environmentalists screaming about the mouse or owl that will be displaced, can come up with meaningful ways to help decrease the huge fires that kill people, trees and animals. While in a discussion one day with an environmentalist, she remarked that clearing brush and slash from the forest takes away homes for the animals. My reply was- if a fire comes through here they not only won’t have a home, most of the little bunnies, squirrels, deer and all the other wildlife will be dead. Her reply: I hadn’t thought about that.

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  • Conservative4Trump
    11/15/2018
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    If humans are responsible it would only be because we don’t clean out undergrowth and cut down sick or dead trees. One spark in all that mess would be out of control in no time. But instead people came up with something called “climate change” and use it to try to blame everything on the humans.

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  • Bernie
    11/15/2018
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    #3. Period. Blow “climate change” up your nose. Temperatures are flat. THERE IS NO WARMING.

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