The issue of wildfire damage in the United States is a multi faceted and complicated one. With the climate changing, large swaths of land have been subject to warmer and drier conditions. Federal and state governments as well as private landowners have proven to be poor stewards of the land. All parties have ignored tactics that could prevent and/or relieve the raging wildfires.
Over 90% of the wildfires in recent years have been caused by humans. These come from unattended campfires, burning of debris and carelessly discarded cigarettes. The remaining fires are sprung from more natural causes such as lightning strikes.
Wildfire Damage in the United States by Acreage
There has been a clear upwards trend in the acreage burned from wildfires since 1983. This comes despite the overall number of wildfires staying relatively steady, meaning that the average fire size is just getting larger. Though 2020 is not included in the chart, it was likely the worst wildfire year on record (eclipsing 2015).
The change in the earths climate has had direct impacts on wildfires. This is especially true in the West and Southwest, where a vast majority of the wildfires occur. Increased temperatures has led to earlier spring melting and decreased snowfall. This in turn leads to less water availability. The subsequent drier conditions with hotter temperatures drastically increases the risk and intensity of wildfires during the summer months.
Poor land management has also played a role in the severity of recent wildfires. Dead trees and vegetation are left standing in many places, posing a massive risk for fire.
In addition, it has taken much too long to adopt the Native American practice of controlled burns – purposely burning small areas of drier/more flammable vegetation in a controlled manner to give accidental wildfires less power. Clearing underbrush from forests has also been proven to help in wildfire management yet is not widely used.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) has collected data on wildfires since 1926. The data would suggest that wildfires have actually burned less acreage in recent years than the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the NIFC also stated it cannot verify its data collected before 1983, and thus the older data cannot be directly compared to the modern data.
Source: National Interagency Fire Center