Western states brace for most severe wildfire outbreak since 2012

Western states brace for most severe wildfire outbreak since 2012
© Getty Images

Smoke is beginning to rise from the West’s public lands — and it is just a taste of what’s to come. In a briefing to members of Congress, Secretary of the Interior Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog | Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service | Senate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog MORE and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueThe ethanol industry is essential — it deserves a boost from Congress US trade policy milks America's dairy farmers Ivanka Trump hands out food boxes to DC families MORE shared predictions of above-average potential for significant wildfire activity this summer across the West. Some states are bracing for the worst severe wildfire outbreak since 2012, fearing it may eclipse even that historic fire year.

This kind of extreme wildfire behavior jeopardizes Western public lands, wildlife and communities, and it’s unacceptable. It's time to move beyond excuses and political expediency and incorporate more active management practices, like grazing, into the protection of our public lands.


Wildfires are becoming hotter and more intense across the West. There is no single reason why: Wind, climate, drought, and human activity all profoundly impact a fire’s severity and behavior. However, the only thing on this list under our control is human activity, which is driven by our choices and reactions. We are largely powerless to immediately and significantly change the wind, drought or climate.


None of our technological advancements can control where and how hard the wind blows. Drought is a natural phenomenon that strikes where and when Mother Nature chooses. Climate models show temperature increases to be largely irreversible in the near future — and the West can’t wait.

So what human activities can we change to prevent extreme wildfires?

To begin, we can change how we approach fire suppression. Of course we should suppress high-intensity, extreme wildfires that destroy, rather than renew, the natural forest ecology and that genuinely threaten homes and communities. But we should also manage, rather than suppress, lower-intensity fires by allowing them to burn out to prevent monumental fuel loads from building up.

But our response to fires alone cannot address extreme wildfire behavior. We must take more active management approaches to address catastrophic wildfires long before they ignite. One of our best tools to accomplish this is grazing.  

Grazing livestock is a valuable and proven tool to reduce the risk of severe wildfires. Like your lawn, which requires trimming and mowing, rangelands and forests need attention or they die. Allowing livestock to graze on the annually renewing forage on our public lands maintains the health and vitality of these ecosystems by reducing fuel loads that can lead to extreme wildfire behavior during peak fire season.

No one is calling for a reckless, grazing free-for-all on our public lands. But the number of intense, ecologically devastating wildfires has risen significantly in recent decades, while grazing on public lands has dramatically declined over the last 65 years.

For example, some states have seen grazing reductions of more than 70 percent on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. While correlation does not always mean causation, these trends support the concept that increasing grazing on public lands is a reasonable and responsible way to reduce the likelihood of intense wildfires.

Grazing alone will not answer the West’s wildfire woes. It must be accompanied by other active management practices like prescribed burns, logging and strategically placed fire breaks. We will never be able to stop wildfires on our public lands, nor should we. The West was meant to burn, heal and regenerate. But we aren’t powerless to stop those extreme wildfires that break historical norms and devastate the West.

It’s time we rise above the habit of simply watching the West reduce to ashes each summer while citing drought, wind and climate change as the source of record levels of wildfire. Shrugging our shoulders at hotter and more intense wildfires that could be prevented by active land management practices is consenting to the loss of wildlife habitat, homes and human life that these wildfires take.

We can do better. Both the environment and Western communities deserve better. We must act now and integrate more active management tools into the protection of our public lands and rural communities.

Matthew Anderson is director of the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.