- Date: September 08, 2021
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, pesticide 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.
Fires accelerate the climate crisis
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.
Here are a few ways our leaders should act:
- Tackle the climate crisis. The changing climate is fueling more frequent and intense fires. To confront climate change, it is critical to transition to a 100% clean energy economy. Contact your elected representatives and urge them to take bold climate action.
- Utilize prescribed burns. Built upon the way in which ecosystems naturally contain and benefit from fire, controlled burns are a sustainable method to manage fuel buildup and reduce the risk of larger, uncontrolled flames.
- Ensure sustainable land use management. Particularly in areas of high wildfire risk, it is important to regulate land-use change and update zoning guidance to ensure that development does not exacerbate fire risk. The impacts of fires do not stop when they are put out, as floods and soil erosion can follow. After a fire, reduce risk of further damage by ensuring that burned land is rehabilitated with vegetation adaptable to a changing climate.
- Make buildings fire-resistant. There are many ways that existing homes can be made more resistant to fire, and new developments can be constructed using fire-resistant practices. These methods include using fire-resistant roof material, keeping gutters clear of debris, planting fire-resistant vegetation, and regularly clearing dead leaves from a building’s surroundings. It is important to ensure that these methods are accessible to lower-income households, and those who may live further from fire departments’ and first responders’ reach.
- Equitably engage local communities. Public communication and educational programming can equip communities with the tools to prepare for, respond to, and rebuild from wildfires. It is important to ensure that materials are accessible to all, such as by translating them into multiple languages.
- Build back safer and greener. In order to reduce future risk and vulnerability, build back using environmentally and socially responsible approaches to land use planning, home construction, roads, and other infrastructure.
Everyone has a role to play in reducing fire risk Here are a few actions we all can take:
- Practice safety. Human negligence is a major cause of wildfires. This includes burning trash, disposing cigarettes, and lighting campfires in areas with high fire risk. You can encourage people around you to take precautions to decrease the risk of starting a fire.
- Manage your space. Manage your home, yard, and land to reduce wildfire risk.
- Develop family safety plans. Create or update your family emergency plans.
- Advocate for safety. Contact your local disaster management, park service, and community groups to learn about what they are doing to reduce fire risk and rebuild safer and greener in the event of a disaster.
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.
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