Reducing forest-undergrowth buildup and trying to extinguish every fire can no longer sufficiently protect people, homes and surrounding ecosystems from devastating wildfires, the team writes in a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Wildfire is catching up to us,” said lead author Tania Schoennagel, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We’re learning our old tools aren’t enough and we need to approach wildfire differently.”
The team argues that wildfire is now an unavoidable issue in the western United States, which has experienced a 3.6-degree uptick in average temperatures – and a three-month expansion of the fire season – since the 1970s. These factors contribute to what the authors call the “new era of western wildfires.”
This trend toward larger, hotter blazes – combined with 2 million new homes in fire-sensitive areas since 1990 – has increased the risks associated with wildfires.
“For a long time, we’ve thought that if we try harder and do better, we can get ahead of wildfire and reduce the risks,” Schoennagel said. “We can no longer do that. This is bigger than us and we’re going to adapt to wildfire rather than the other way around.”
The authors suggest controversial approaches, including more intentionally set controlled burns, and allowing other fires to burn almost unimpeded to reduce nature fuels. These strategies would reduce future risk and enable ecosystems to adapt to increasing wildfires and global warming.
“We need the foresight to help guide these ecosystems in a healthy direction now so they can adjust in pace with our changing climate,” said co-author Max Moritz, a fire scientist at the University of California Cooperative Extension. “That means embracing some changes while we have a window to do so.”
Reforming federal, state and local policies would also help, according to the team. Currently, federal taxpayers foot the bill for managing western wildfires, which has averaged about $2 billion annually in recent years. If states and counties paid some of that cost, it would incentivize communities to plan better and adopt building codes to reduce risk.
The team also proposes targeting forest-thinning efforts to particularly high-risk areas. The federal government has spent roughly $5 billion since 2006 on thinning dense forests and removing fuel from 17 million acres of land, often in remote areas. Focusing thinning projects on forests in dry areas and communities in fire-sensitive regions would increase adaptation to wildfires, according to the authors.
“We have to learn that wildfire is inevitable, in the same way that droughts and flooding are. We’ve tried to control fire, but it’s not a control we can maintain,” Schoennagel said. “Like other natural disasters, we have to learn to adapt.”