A New Climate- and Human-Influenced Wildfire Era for Western Forests
By Dominick DellaSala, Ph.D.
Wildfires are greatly impacting human communities in the West that every summer face the prospects of loss of life, homeowner damages, and smoke-filled skies. Legislators and many managers believe wildfire intensity and occurrence can be greatly reduced by removing environmental safeguards to allow more logging in the backcountry to avoid wildfire “disasters.”
Wildfires are not ecological catastrophes, rather, they are a keystone natural disturbance agent that has maintained the biologically rich and fire-adapted web-of-life in forests of the western United States for millennia. Wildfire area burned, size of large wildfires (>1,000 ac), and length of the fire season have been increasing in recent decades and these increases are at least partially attributed to the emergence of a new fire-climate era that is interacting with human-caused wildfire ignitions and logging related conversion of native fire-resilient forests to flammable tree plantations.
Proposals to radically increase logging of native forests to reduce “fuels” will not achieve their desired outcomes but instead may increase wildfire risks and impair the adaptive capacity of forests to respond to cumulative disturbances in a rapidly changing climate. Responsible wildfire management and climate change policies are needed to:
- reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning while storing more carbon in forest ecosystems;
- prioritize vegetation treatments in “fire-sheds” closest to homes;
- redesign the built environment with wildfire safety in mind, including limiting ex-urban sprawl, and
- manage wildfires for ecosystem benefits under safe conditions.