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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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