WildfiresHow Years of Fighting Every Wildfire Helped Fuel the Western Megafires of Today

By Susan J. Prichard, Keala Hagmann, and Paul Hessburg

Published 4 August 2021

Why are wildfires getting worse? Climate change is a big part of it. But, ironically, a chronic lack of fire in Western landscapes also contributes to increased fire severity and vulnerability to wildfires. It allows dry brush and live and dead trees to build up, and with more people living in wildland areas to spark blazes, pressure to fight every forest fire has increased the risk of extreme fire.

After so many smoke-filled summers and record-setting burns, residents of Western North America are no strangers to wildfires. Still, many questions are circulating about why forest fires are becoming larger and more severe – and what can be done about it.

Is climate change fueling these fires? Does the long history of fighting every fire play a role? Should we leave more fires to burn? What can be done about Western forests’ vulnerability to wildfires and climate change?

We invited 40 fire and forest ecologists living across the Western U.S. and Canada to examine the latest research and answer these questions in a set of studies published Aug. 2, 2021. Collectively, we are deeply concerned about the future of Western forests and communities under climate change.

So, why are wildfires getting worse?

Climate change is a big part of it. Summer wildfire seasons are already 40 to 80 days longer on average than they were 30 years ago. Annual droughts are more pronounced, making it easier for fuels to dry out and fires to ignite and spread. Extreme weather events, marked by dry fuels, lightning storms and strong winds, are also increasingly common and provide essential ingredients for rapid fire growth, as witnessed by the Bootleg Fire burning in Oregon and record-setting fires in California and Colorado in 2020.

Ironically, a chronic lack of fire in Western landscapes also contributes to increased fire severity and vulnerability to wildfires. It allows dry brush and live and dead trees to build up, and with more people living in wildland areas to spark blazes, pressure to fight every forest fire has increased the risk of extreme fire.

The Problem with Fighting Every Wildfire
Historically, fire was a regular visitor to most Western forests, except moist locations like those along the Pacific Northwest coast and in British Columbia. Frequent or periodic fires from Indigenous burning and lightning strikes created patchworks of grasslands, shrublands and regenerating forests of all ages.

Past fires influence the way subsequent fires burn and what they leave behind. For example, Indigenous burning practices not only enhance cultural resources and wildlife habitat but also reduce the amount and connectedness of fuels that drive large, severe wildfires. Similarly, patchy burns from lightning ignitions create forest landscapes that are less likely to burn all at once.

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