When we hear about wildfires in the West, we often think about the devastation and impact they unleash on humans, wildlife and landscapes alike. Smoldering homes, charred animal carcasses, swathes of blackened terrain; these are the images we’ve grown accustomed to as wildfires have ravaged much of the western United States.
In 2020 alone, 10.7 million acres of forest were burned in the West, which was three times more than the prior annual total on record. From California to Greece to Siberia, wildfires in 2021 are already setting records around the world. According to scientists, this last July was the worst wildfire month in recorded history.
While the human, animal and infrastructural costs are already tragic, a further complicating factor is gaining attention: These wildfires are proving to be a climate nightmare. Climate change is caused by the excessive presence of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere, creating a heat-trapping blanket around the planet. Trees, like any other carbon-based life form, suck carbon dioxide from the air to fuel their growth, and thereby play a significant role in mitigating the severity of climate change. Yet, as millions of acres of forest go up in flames every year, all the carbon stored in these trees is released back into the atmosphere, adding to the so-called greenhouse effect.
By September of 2020, the wildfires in California had already exceeded the state’s annual fossil fuel-based emissions by 25 percent. In total, the state’s wildfires emitted 100 million tons of carbon dioxide last year, equivalent to 24 million cars, and far outweigh the emissions reductions caused by the pandemic. In Arizona, large fires have tripled regionally, to similar climate effect, with 2.9 million Arizonans now being placed in the “elevated risk” category. Colorado experienced more than 100 days of fires last year, as well as the largest three fires in the state’s recorded history. Overall, the carbon emissions caused by the western wildfires in 2020 were over three times greater than the historical average for the region, jeopardizing these states’ climate commitments. According to California state Sen. Bill Dodd (D), “California has been a leader in the greenhouse gas reduction area, but the reality is these fires have absolutely undermined that progress.”
The problem is only set to get worse, in some kind of infernal climate feedback loop. As the planet increasingly warms, exacerbating heatwaves and creating drier forest conditions, wildfires will become more likely. While most fires are started by humans themselves, climate change risks creating prime tinderboxes for far more intense burns. According to researchers at the University of Utah, fire risk could increase fourfold by the end of the century. The recent IPCC report confirms the increased risk of wildfires due to climate change.
Of course, some argue that new tree growth will simply replace the burned trees, promptly resuming their role as the original carbon capture machine. However, recent research suggests that large, uncontrollable wildfires cause so much devastation to ecosystems, that forests are increasingly struggling to recover. If that persists as a common trend over the next few decades, it will mean less forest cover to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Given that forests absorb up to 30 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions annually, this throws an enormous wrench in any climate plan.
More proactive measures must be taken to limit the severity of these wildfires. It is well-known by now that fire suppression tactics in states like California have backfired spectacularly, by allowing “fuel loads” such as underbrush and dead trees to pile up, effectively creating enormous tinderboxes. If we want to prevent millions of acres and thousands of homes from going up in flames every year, while meeting our climate goals, policymakers will need to get more serious about sensible forest management.
Methods such as controlled burns, forest-thinning and underbrush-removal are crucial ingredients. Old-school environmentalists tend to be skeptical of controlled burns because they “destroy” forests and release emissions that were stored in the trees. However, data indicates that within a half-year of controlled spring burns, carbon uptake in the new growth was already 79 percent of pre-burn levels, and reaches full pre-burn carbon sequestration within two to three years. In the meantime, more serious, uncontrolled fires are precluded, which would release far more carbon dioxide. One paper concludes: “initial increase in emissions is more than offset over time by the avoided impacts of wildfires.” Clearing dead and old trees revitalizes forests and prevents a significant wildfire hazard.
Underbrush removal is another crucial element of forest management. Letting underbrush such as leaves, bushes and small trees pile-up increases the available fuel load for wildfires. Federal policy must direct the U.S. Forest Service to proactively remove excess underbrush and carry out controlled burns, given that 65 percent of wildfires occur on federal lands. At the regional level, local and state governments must be given greater authority, responsibility and resources to adequately manage the forests within their communities.
A lot of talks have surfaced recently about using nature as a tool to tackle climate change, for example by planting trees. Yet, planting more trees won’t mean much if millions of acres continue to go up in flames each year. We ignore the need for better forest and wildfire management at the expense both of communities in the West and the climate.
Christopher Barnard is the national policy director at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC) and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisBarnardDL.