Wildfire in forest

Wildfires have always been a natural part of forest ecosystems in the western U.S. But now climate change is causing hotter, drier conditions. And the decades-long practice of putting out fires instead of letting them burn has greatly increased the amount of available fuel. As a result, there now are more big fires.

Schoennagel: “In the seventies, we had 20 large fires per year occurring in western forests, and recently, well over 100 large fires per year occur.”

Prescribed burns and thinning trees can help keep fires from burning out of control. Tania Schoennagel, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says less than one percent of western forests burn each year. That makes it almost impossible to predict where a fire will occur.

So to make the best use of limited resources, she recommends applying preventive measures where people live.

Schoennagel: “The Wildland-Urban Interface is only about 15 percent of the area burned. And yet those fires consume about 95 percent of our suppression costs.”

Schoennagel says thinning forests and removing excess fuel in these areas will become even more urgent as the climate continues to warm.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...