How wildfires have gotten worse in recent years

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How wildfires have gotten worse in recent years

A series of thunderstorms in mid-August 2020 hit Northern California, an area already experiencing a severe drought season, starting what would become known as the August Complex fire. For nearly three months, it burned through national forests, destroying 935 buildings and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people. By the time it was fully confined, its full range was exceeded twice the size California’s previous record and among the largest fires in US history.

Less than a year later, the August complex’s record was nearly broken when the Dixie Fires erupted in Northern California, burning more than 963,000 acres and destroying more than 1,300 structures in the area.

Stacker data quoted from National Interservice Center for Firefighters, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to visualize how the spread of forest fires has worsened in recent years.

New outbreaks of megafires (fires burning more than 100,000 acres) have become a seasonal repeat across the western United States. Wildfires are innate to forest ecosystems, clearing away dead debris and clearing the way for new growth, but climate change extended dry seasons, increased temperatures and expanded the potential for large-scale wildfires. Beyond weather-related factors, the prevalence of insects such as bark beetles damage trees and make them more likely to burn. Invasive vegetation such as cheating also burns easily and helps to spread.

Trees, traditionally a carbon store, release carbon immediately upon combustion and upon decay. The EU’s Copernicus atmosphere monitoring service estimated global forest fires in 2021 released 1,760 megatons carbon emissions, just above what the nation of Russia issued in 2020. black carbonor soot, can also travel beyond areas of wildfire, absorbing sunlight and further warming the earth.

Beyond environmental threats, the growing scope of wildfires threatens the displacement of countless residents. The Marshall Fire in January of this year destroyed over 1,000 households in Colorado, demonstrating the damage a wildfire can cause in a densely populated area like the suburbs. The campfire in 2018 permanently displaced a estimated at 20,000 residents of Butte County, California. Despite this, ppeople continue to move to areas prone to wildfiresexposing a growing population to longer fire seasons and associated health risks.

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Emilia Ruzicka / Stacker

Wildfire numbers drop, but more acres are burning

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, forest management largely focused on forest fire prevention at all scales. Smokey the Bear was a national mascot for fire prevention, overseeing a decades-long decline in the number and average size of fires. But without regular fires, debris accumulates. This, combined with other environmental factors, ultimately fueled more costly large-scale fires that have come to define the current wildfire season.

Despite almost 10,000 fewer fires per year on average from 2011 to 2021 compared to 1983-2010, the average area burned by these fires per year has more than doubled. From 1983 to 2010, the average number of acres burned per year was approximately 4.4 million. This number increased to 7.5 million acres per year for the period 2011-2021.

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Wildfire seasons are getting longer

The total number of acres burned by wildfires in December 2020 was three times the 10-year average for the month. The following year also had a damaging December, with a smaller but still above average spread covering 336,984 acres. Forest fire season traditionally lasts from May to October, but shorter winters and earlier snowmelt have prolonged the risk of wildfires. 2021 set a record for days at preparedness level 5, the highest alert for wildfire risk.

the USDA Forest Service warned in 2021, “For years, agencies have relied on seasonal firefighters during the summer months, but now that wildfires are burning in the winter, they need to reevaluate their hiring plans.”

Emilia Ruzicka / Stacker

Wildfire suppression costs have risen by billions

With the increasing severity of wildfires each year, it follows that more resources are needed to tame the flames. In 1999, just before the turn of the century, the Forest Service and all other Department of the Interior agencies spent $515.5 million on wildfire suppression. Over the past decade, the average cost of wildfire suppression has skyrocketed to almost $2.1 billion per year. The Forest Service bears the brunt of this cost, contributing about three-quarters of the funds each year.

Although there is currently no official mechanism for tracking the cost of wildfire damage, academics across the country have attempted to estimate the economic impact of wildfires. In 2020, a team of researchers estimated that the 2018 California wildfires caused $148.5 billion in economic damage.

Emma Rubin / Stacker

Lightning fires cause more damage in the West

At the national level, 89% of forest fires were caused by humans in 2021, but human-caused wildfires contributed only 42% of the total area burned. In the southern and eastern United States, human-caused fires still cause the most damage, but prolonged dry seasons in the west have intensified the impact of lightning when it strikes.

Dry lightning is created by thunderstorms at high altitudes. Extreme heat and drought can cause rain to evaporate before it reaches the ground. Lightning fires can also cause greater damage as they can take more time to be detected, whereas human-caused fires are often closer to cities and high traffic areas. Winds associated with dry thunderstorms can also fan the flames further. These factors mean that even if the West is less sensitive to lightning than other parts of the country, bolts can cause more damage.

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California wildfires continue to break records

While lightning sparked some of the most devastating fires in California, including the August, SCU and LNU Complex Fires, power lines also caused considerable damage. Contact with overgrown trees, downed lines and frayed wires can start flames. Pacific Gas and Electricity was held responsible for the 2018 Camp Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire and instituted power outages on high risk wildfire days.

Although the origin of fires varies, each is exacerbated by existing environmental factors. A survey 2018 from the USDA Forest Service identified nearly 150 million dead trees between 2010 and 2018 in California. Two years later, the 2020 record season has burned nearly 4.4 million acres and the five biggest megafires occurred simultaneously in August and September. The season demonstrated how the accumulation of vulnerable trees can trigger unprecedented spread.

A Aerial survey 2021 by the USDA Forest Service offered some hope. Annual tree mortality has declined over the past five years, with an estimated 9.5 million dead trees in the state covering more than one million acres, although tree mortality remains at a much higher rate. higher than pre-drought levels in California in the early 2000s.

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