Due to much of the western United States being naturally arid, high mountain scrub desert, grassland, and dry forest, wildfires are an unfortunate fact of life. They always have been and likely always will be.
And despite what you may have heard, there is no evidence climate change is making the problem worse.
California, where much of the attention on wildfires has been focused in recent years, because it has a large population and major media outlets are located there, was one of the least populated (and lowest population density) regions of the country before European colonizers spread across the continent. Research shows droughts in the region have on occasion lasted on the order of a hundred years. And there is evidence massive wildfires regularly swept through the region historically. Indeed, a 2007 paper in the journal Forest Ecology and Management found prior to European colonization in the 1800s, more than 4.4 million acres of California forest and shrub-land burned annually, far more than the area of California that has burned since 2000, which ranges from 90,000 acres to 1,590,000 acres per year.
Although one wouldn’t know it from the news coverage and alarming, but false, claims that climate change is making wildfires more frequent and severe, the opposite is true. A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found wildfires in the western United States attained “the lowest levels … during the 20th century and during the Little Ice Age (LIA, ca. 1400–1700 CE [Common Era]). Prominent peaks in forest fires occurred during the Medieval Climate Anomaly (ca. 950–1250 CE) and during the 1800s.”
Wildfires have declined sharply over the course of the past century in the United States and globally. As reported in Climate at a Glance: Wildfires, long-term data from U.S. National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) show wildfires have declined in number and severity since the early 1900s. Using data on U.S. wildfires from as far back as 1926, NIFC reports the numbers of acres burned is far less now than it was throughout the early 20th century, with the current acres burned running about 1/4th to 1/5th of the record values that occurred in the 1930s.
Globally, the data on wildfires are just as clear. In his book False Alarm, Bjorn Lomborg observes:
“There is plenty of evidence for a reduction in the level of devastation caused by fire, with satellites showing a 25 percent reduction globally in burned area just over the past 18 years … In total, the global amount of area burned as declined by more than 540,000 square miles, from 1.9 million square miles in the early part of last century to 1.4 million square miles today.”
To the extent wildfires have grown modestly in recent years, although still far below the modern peaks of the early 1900s, government policies and demographic shifts are most to blame.
After the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, forest policy on federal lands shifted, and not for the better. After Reagan, forests began to be managed for the imagined good of ecosystems, placing ecological and recreational values above timber production. The result was an abdication of management in which nature was allowed to take its course unfettered.
Under this policy, thousands of miles of forest roads were ripped out, roads built to allow the harvesting of timber, but also used by firefighters to access wildfires in the hinterlands before they spread to populated regions. And timber harvests plunged as much as 84 percent from 12 billion board feet per year to less than 2 billion board feet per year.
The result across much of the western states has been an unnatural tree density. For example, historically, ponderosa pines grew in stands of 20 to 55 trees per acre, but in some areas, they now grow in densities of 300 to 900 trees per acre. The unnatural density allowed what were formerly isolated pockets of insect infestations to morph into massive infestations killing large swaths of forests. There are now more dead trees in many federal forests than live ones, drying out and becoming growing stockpile of fuel for wildfires. Indeed, the U.S. Forest Service estimates more than 190 million acres of public land, almost all of it in the arid west, are at risk of catastrophic fires. Too many trees, too much brush, and bureaucratic regulations and lawsuits filed by environmental extremists are to blame.
On the demographic side, populations have grown dramatically in the western states. What once were once uninhabited areas or small towns have become major metropolitan areas with suburbs growing out to the edges of wildlands. For instance, in Colorado, where wildfires are raging at the moment, the population has grown five-fold since 1940, from a little more than one million in 1940 to nearly 5.76 million today. Former small mining towns have become cities. Colorado’s population has grown 14.5 percent since the 2010 census, the fourth largest percentage growth in the nation.
Across the west, more people, more buildings, and more infrastructure have created a growing urban-rural interface, meaning more people and property are in harm’s way when wildfires inevitably occur. Indeed, the absolute costs of wildfires have increased dramatically over the past century even as the number of acres burned has declined. When wildfires strike, more people are affected and more expensive property is destroyed. The higher costs aren’t caused by climate change but from the rise in the number of people and value of assets placed in the “bullseye” as a result of demographic shifts in where people live and the lifestyles they pursue.
When it comes to wildfires, to co-opt the immortal words of naval officer Oliver Hazard Perry, “we have met the enemy, and it is, not climate change, but us.”
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.