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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
Growing in scale, frequency, and intensity, wildfires wreak devastating consequences on an ever-larger number of communities. The flames are claiming lives, incinerating homes, and pushing some animal species to the brink of extinction. But not all fires have to become a disaster. In some regions, fire is a natural process and an essential element of a healthy landscape.
In the United States, forest management practices and fire management have changed over time. When land managers began to focus on eliminating fire, natural processes were disrupted, in some cases leading to the buildup of fuel in the form of dead and dry vegetation. When that fuel ignites, it erupts into larger, more devastating flames.
With the climate crisis growing increasingly dire, hotter temperatures, more intense and longer dry seasons, earlier snowmelt, and stronger winds damage nature’s ability to resist fire. Fuel accumulates as more intense wet periods lead to rapid vegetation growth, and longer heat waves dry it out. On top of that, increasingly frequent lightning strikes provide more opportunities for ignition. The result of these interwoven drivers is a tinderbox. The fire season is starting earlier and ending later—and the wildfires that ignite are more destructive.
Land use decisions can also make people more vulnerable to wildfire. These drivers include deforestation, poor soil management, agricultural development, lack of fire-resistant construction practices, and zoning that allows development in areas of high fire risk. As with other disasters, the impacts of fires are disproportionately felt by Indigenous peoples, communities of color, and low-income communities. Fires can exacerbate structural inequities such as air quality disparities, chemical exposure, heat-related illnesses, and unsafe working conditions. To best manage wildfire risk, it is important to integrate equity and justice by empowering local people to participate in decision-making and channeling resources to the communities that are most impacted.
As wildfires burn, they accelerate the climate crisis by releasing huge stores of carbon into the atmosphere. Especially intense fire damages the soils’ deepest layers, unlocking the ignition of centuries-old “legacy carbon,” which accounts for 69% of the carbon stored in forests. After fires burn out, the smaller, younger, and drier forests have a limited ability to sequester carbon. Vegetation reaches its full sequestration ability after 25 to 250 years of growth. As fires burn more frequently, the opportunity for plants to reach that full potential becomes more unlikely.
Humans are responsible for the vast majority of out-of-control wildfires in the US. That means solutions are also in our hands. For years, governments have spent massive amounts of money to extinguish fires, but the amount of area burnt continues to increase.
The worsening fire crisis necessitates increased investment in addressing the root causes of fire disasters. Governments must reform fire management policies to invest in prevention measures and sustainable management, while also boldly tackling the greenhouse gas emissions at the core of the climate crisis.
Without action that matches the scale of the challenge, fires will grow ever more devastating. By reforming fire management policies and taking transformative climate action, we can limit fires’ worst impacts -- saving lives, protecting wildlife, and safeguarding our communities.