The link between climate change and wildfires in America's West

The link between climate change and wildfires in America's West
© Getty Images

Each year seems to bring a stronger, more dangerous and more damaging series of wildfire’s in America’s West. Although the Congress has given greater resources and flexibility to agencies that fight wildfires, this country and its government must go one step further: preventing or mitigating natural disasters must get the same resources and attention as our national security. In large part the increased intensity and frequency of wildfires is due to climate change. Unless we get serious about mitigating wildfires and addressing their root cause, climate change, we will find more than just devastated homes in some states. We could see structural damage to our economy, public health due to air quality and more.

The impact of climate change, drought and extreme heat in particular, on wildfires is undeniable. Not only the entire Western United States, but the rangelands of the America’s heartland, and forests of the southeast and even New England are directly threatened by wildfires that each year set records for being the most destructive in history. 


The only solution is to recognize that the threat of wildfires is one of the most significant environmental catastrophes we face and take action. Congress should be commended for taking action to address problems in wildfire suppression and prevention by adding funds and flexibility to help the Department of Agriculture and other federal and state agencies, but much more needs to be done.


In the short term the Forest Service, state firefighters, the National Guard, and even the military — when necessary — needs to be engaged to deal with wildfires and funded to meet the immediate necessity to suppress fires when raging, but also undertake preventive efforts to thin forest growth and adequately fund and implement forest management and conservation practices. 

But in the longer term, we must collectively understand that this phenomenon is inextricably linked to climate change, and we must change our national and individual behavior and consumption patterns to reduce activity that is harmful to the environment. We need to think about this threat and act on it the same way we think about our national security and defense budget. No efforts should be spared to suppress and prevent fires and slow or mitigate climate change.  At a minimum, at the federal level, all relevant government agencies, from the White House, to USDA, to FEMA, to Commerce (NOAA and Weather Service) to Interior to the Pentagon should collaborate on an emergency basis to assess and address the continuing threat both as it manifests itself in the form of disasters like wildfires, and the macro challenge of reducing climate change. 

Wildfires are a massive threat to our natural resources, human health and property, our economy and our entire country. The Forest Service, and other federal, state and local fire fighters are heroes in the battle to suppress and prevent these fires. The last few years, thanks to climate change, have created wildfires of such tremendous destructive power that there is perhaps no more dangerous occupation in the world today than facing the greatest destructive threat from nature.

We have always have had forest fires, but climate change with more intense drought, heat and volatile weather conditions is driving the intensity with increasing vulnerability to people and property. With all our attention focused on special investigations and politics, watching vast areas of the American West burn up should bring some realism and urgency to the issues of forest fires and dealing with natural disasters and climate change. Unless we start taking this seriously we may find ourselves facing the Armageddon described in an old spiritual and popularized by James Baldwin, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, but fire next time.”

Dan Glickman served as U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Clinton and represented Kansas in Congress for 18 years. He is now vice president of the Aspen Institute. Follow him on Twitter @DanRGlickman.