Where do they start? Why? Who is responsible for suppressing them?
With the summer surge of forest fires on the West Coast of the United States behind us, questions still arise. Who started them? Why? Who is responsible for putting them out? As of November 2, 2020, over 47,500 wildfires burned nearly 8.6 million acres in the U.S. this year.
Are “antifa arsonists” starting the fires? Are blue states at fault for not “raking forests”?
As it turns out, the majority of forests and timberland in the US are under federal ownership and control.
Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly asked questions and misconceptions.
Are there forest fires only in the US?
A popular theme on social media this last fall was that wildfires only happen in the Pacific “blue” states and somehow “mysteriously” stop at the Canadian and Mexican borders.
This, clearly, is not true. Wildfires were also raging in British Columbia and in Baja, Mexico. In fact, Mexico sent its own fire responders north to volunteer in US forest fires, as thanks to Oregon fire crews for training their staff and first responders. Many Facebook and Twitter users were referring to maps that show only U.S. fire data, which give the appearance that fires only exist within the U.S.
In USA Today, Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Texas Tech Climate Center, addressed the issue on Twitter. “The latest disinformation circling the twittersphere asks why the impacts of climate change appear to stop at the Canadian border,” she wrote. “The answer is simple: because US maps only show US data.”
Alaska, which is not in the contiguous-continental US, always suffers the most devastating losses in terms of acreage and resources. More than half of the acreage burned in 2019 was in Alaska. The 2015 fire season was the largest on record, with 10.1 million acres burned — more than half of these acres were in Alaska.
Who owns forests in the Western US?
In California, here’s the ownership/management picture:
- 58% of 33 million acres is federally owned and managed
- 39% private and Native American tribes
- 3% state ownership
There’s a similar picture in Oregon and Washington, with significant proportions of forest land in federal rather than state hands, as well as under private ownership.
- 60% federal
- 34% private
- 6% state and public ownership
- 43% federal
- 45% private/commercial/tribal/public
- 12% state
How do wildfires start?
Most wildfires are human-caused (88% on average), although wildfires caused by lightning tend to be larger and burn more acreage.
Arson accounts for about 20% of wildfires and grassland fires each year. Because arson often happens near roads or towns, arson fires threaten more homes and people than wilderness fires.
The wildland-urban interface (WUI), where residential communities intermingle with wildland vegetation, is a major source of human-caused wildfires, according to a research report in the journal Fire. Almost one-third of wildfires started in the WUI, even though it accounts for only 10% of U.S. land area. And within the WUI, 97% of all fires were human-caused.
The majority of human-caused wildfires are accidental, although often due to humans being foolish and careless:
- burning debris
- sparks thrown from equipment and railroads
- downed or damaged power lines and blown transformers
- accidental ignitions
Campfires are a leading cause of wildfires, and those often start in state parks where camping is permitted.
Where do wildfires start? On federal, state, or private land?
In California the largest August 2020 wildfires were started mainly by 12,000 lightning strikes, converging in over a dozen raging mega-fires. Weather does not respect boundaries, and therefore lightning strikes affect all zones.
While there is very little federal forestland in the East, most of the rugged, forested land west of the Rockies is owned by the federal government. Therefore, more fires start on federal land.
Which fires do the most damage?
In 2019, 65% of the nationwide acreage burned by wildfires was on federal land — mainly DOI land, and mostly in Alaska. The other 35% of the acreage burned occurred on state, local, or privately owned lands but also accounted for 78% of the fires (39,611).
Translated, what this means is that far more fires start on state/local/private property, but the fires that start on federal land are the ones that quickly become out of control and cause the most damage, by far.
Who is responsible for suppressing wildfires?
States are responsible for responding to wildfires that begin on non-federal (state, local, and private) lands, except for lands protected by federal agencies under cooperative agreements.
The federal government is responsible for responding to wildfires that begin on federal lands. The Forest Service — which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — carries out wildfire management and response across 193 million acres. The Department of Interior (DOI) manages wildfire response for more than 400 million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges and preserves, public lands, and Indian reservations.
When fires merge into mega-fires, the federal government is also responsible for coordinating and managing inter-state and inter-agency firefighting resources and responses.
What can be done?
California has recently signed a major agreement with the federal government to aggressively reshape forest management. Under the plan, California agencies and the U.S. Forest Service will use brush clearing, logging and prescribed fires to thin out 1 million acres a year by 2025 — roughly double the current rate of thinning.