Wildfires have become an increasingly urgent concern for communities across western North America. The devastating impact of these fires on both human settlements and ecosystems has led to a surge of questions about their causes, prevention, and the role of climate change. As experts point to the growing influence of climate change and altered land management practices, it’s crucial for us to understand the history of wildfires and their ecological significance. By learning from the past, we can make informed choices to create more resilient communities and safeguard our natural landscapes for future generations.
The severity of wildfires in western North America has reached alarming levels, prompting widespread worry and a search for answers. With experts pinpointing climate change as the primary driver, it’s clear that the collective actions of society must adapt to mitigate the risks associated with these destructive events.
Climate change stands as the number one reason behind the escalating wildfires in western North America. The summer wildfire season now extends 40-80 days longer on average than it did three decades ago. The changing climate has led to more pronounced droughts, facilitating the drying out of fuels and providing the perfect conditions for fires to ignite and spread. Additionally, extreme weather events like lightning storms and strong winds further amplify the risks and impact of wildfires.
Historically, Indigenous burning practices played a vital role in shaping the landscapes of western North America. Frequent or periodic fires, ignited through cultural burning, created patchworks of grasslands, shrublands, and regenerating forests. These practices enhanced cultural resources, wildlife habitat, and reduced the amount of fuel available to drive severe natural wildfires. With the forced removal of indigenous peoples from their land during the colonization of North America, so too were the benefits of the health of the lands that were under the care of native peoples.
The response to the “Big Blowup” of 1910 triggered a shift towards aggressive fire suppression policies. However, this approach led to the accumulation of fuels in forests, creating a hazardous environment. While efforts to prevent fires in the short term seemed logical, they contributed to the wildland fire paradox—increased suppression resulting in worse wildfires when they do occur.
A solution to the wildfire crisis lies in the restoration of controlled burns, also known as prescribed burns. Indigenous cultural burning and planned, controlled fires during off-seasons can reduce the buildup of fuels and prevent the uncontrollable spread of wildfires. Unfortunately, due to misconceptions and economic concerns, controlled burns have been limited in recent times, contributing to the worsening wildfire problem.
The consequences of wildfires extend beyond scorched land; they significantly affect air quality and public health. Wildfires emit substantial amounts of smoke and particulate matter, causing respiratory problems, reduced lung function, and even premature death. Prescribed burns, while producing smoke as well, can result in more manageable public health impacts when compared to large-scale, uncontrolled wildfires. One of the major reasons we do not have prescribed burns anymore is due to air quality laws that have been passed due to the smoke they produce.
Addressing the wildfire crisis requires collective action. Individuals can support relief efforts by donating, volunteering, and raising awareness about the need for sustainable land management practices. Additionally, communities must work together to develop fire-adapted strategies that include controlled burns, thinning dense forests, and managing wildfires to restore healthy ecosystem patterns.
The sad truth about wildfires is that they are a product of both natural forces and human choices. By acknowledging the historical importance of Indigenous burning practices and understanding the ecological benefits of controlled burns, we can pave the way for a safer, more resilient future. We are not separate from nature, we need to learn from Indigenous wisdom of the reciprocal nature of our relationship to the planet. Climate change’s impact on the wildfire crisis demands swift action and a paradigm shift towards sustainable land management practices. As we commemorate milestones like the Weeks Act, which marked a crucial turning point in forest conservation, we are reminded that our relationship with fire can be both destructive and regenerative. To protect our communities, ecosystems, and shared future, it’s imperative that we learn from the past and make informed choices that will shape a better tomorrow.
By Brittany Angelo, August 22, 2023