The West is ablaze, and it’s sparking a political debate over whether poor forest management or warming temperatures is what’s making the fires so devastating.
The reality, however, is that both are contributing to the massive blazes in the West.
“It’s not all climate change. It’s not all forest maintenance,” said Eric Sprague, vice president for forest restoration with American Forests. “It’s them both enabling each other to create the conditions we have today.”
Poor forest management and climate change have set the stage for the “unprecedented size” and “how fast the fires are moving through the system,” he added. Fires have incinerated more than 3.4 million acres in California and roughly 1 million acres in Oregon this year alone.
Framing the issue as an either-or is a “silly conversation to have at this point,” Sprague said.
Nonetheless, that’s how it’s being framed in the political debate.
President Trump has been quick to blame California’s failure to manage its forests for the raging fires sweeping across the state. He has repeatedly said that California must “clean” its forest floors to remove broken trees and leaves that can become kindling for fires.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, meanwhile, said the wildfires are a manifestation of climate change. Their severity is just a preview of what’s to come if Trump wins reelection and the U.S. delays further on addressing climate change, he said in a speech on Sept. 14.
“It shouldn’t be so bad that millions of Americans live in the shadow of an orange sky and are left asking, ‘Is doomsday here?'” Biden said.
Trump rejected that warming temperatures are having any effect. “It will start getting cooler. You just watch,” Trump said, without evidence, during a Sept. 14 wildfire briefing in California.
Scientists say climate change is having an undeniable effect on the wildfires.
Climate change is making things hotter and drier, creating perfect storm conditions for wildfires. Record-breaking temperatures across much of the West in the waning summer days has only made matters worse.
During hot weather, the atmosphere demands more water, essentially acting like a giant sponge sucking up moisture from dead plants and vegetation, said Matthew Hurteau, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico who studies climate change and forest ecosystems. Heat waves such as the West has experienced recently crank up that process, drying out forests even more quickly and priming them to burn more easily, he added.
Those heat waves have also meant temperatures have stayed hotter at night, when fires would usually slow down naturally due to cooler weather, Hurteau said.
Beyond hotter temperatures, climate change can mean more intense and more frequent extreme weather events, such as lightning storms and strong winds, that can spark fires, scientists say.
For example, the Western Cascades region in Oregon gets wind storms, but recent storms were “not normal” and “just really drove the growth” of already burning small fires in the state, said Brian Kittler, American Forests’s senior director of forest restoration.
Kittler is based in western Washington County, Oregon, roughly 40 minutes southwest of Portland. It’s not normal to get fires in his region, but there were four small fires recently burning within 10 miles of his house, he said.
However, it’s not just climate change making the fires worse, scientists say. Many forests in the West are simply overgrown, and federal, state, and local governments haven’t done enough to manage the risks of severe wildfires in them.
Forest management doesn’t mean “raking” the forest floors, however, as Trump has suggested.
“If you look at what the fire community tells homeowners to do, it is things like rake the pine needles away from your house because, on the scale of your yard, you can totally do that,” Hurteau said. “But that sort of thing is not feasible in the forest, and it’s not desirable either.”
Instead, for some regions in the West, forest management could simply mean thinning out the forest overgrowth by cutting down trees.
Even more important, scientists say, is reintroducing prescribed or controlled fires, known as “good fires,” back into forests such as those in the California Rockies that are supposed to burn more frequently.
For years, the common practice has been to suppress fires as quickly as possible, but that doesn’t allow low-intensity fires to do their job, Sprague said. Those fires clear out dead and dying trees and other materials likely to make fires bigger if they pile up.
Not letting those fires run their course can also allow new species of trees that aren’t able to handle fire move into forests. Those species tend to burn more easily, Sprague added.
The West should be ramping up prescribed burns on a massive scale. In fact, Kittler said that 60% of California’s forests and 40% of forests in Washington state and Oregon are “departed from their natural fire regime” due to too much fire suppression.
There are significant hurdles, though. Resources are sparse. Many of the same crews that are fighting intense wildfires are the ones who would be managing prescribed burns, and oftentimes, those seasons can overlap in the West, said Andrea Thode, a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University.
“We have a lot of firefighters,” added Thode, who previously worked for the U.S. Forest Service. “What we don’t always have is people on board during the time where we need to be doing the prescribed fire.”
And where there’s fire, there’s smoke, creating another major challenge, especially in the West, where many regions already face poor air quality. About one-third of the U.S. population has a respiratory problem that is negatively affected by smoke, Thode said.
Nonetheless, she suggested there’s a way for local air quality officials to manage the effects of prescribed burns, which are smaller and controlled, and prepare people for the smoke associated with them.
“The option is never ‘no smoke,’” Thode added. “It’s smoke like it is now with the worst air quality in the world, or it’s smoke in more bits and pieces.”
Nonetheless, forest management can’t alone solve the West’s wildfire problem.
Modeling in the southwest, for example, shows that even if the region did six times the amount of prescribed fires on the ground, it wouldn’t mitigate the effects of climate change, Thode said. In some instances, she said, forests will burn so much in a warming world that they’ll convert to grasslands or shrublands.
Forest management can delay that transition and give the region a chance to prepare for and adapt to losing those forest ecosystems, Thode added.
But it won’t stop the burning. Sprague cited projections showing the area in the West burned each year could increase by 600% by midcentury if global temperatures go up by 1 degree Celsius.
“You’ll hear terms like ‘new normal’ or ‘tipping point’ being used, but we’re not there,” Sprague said. “This is not a new normal. It’s going to continue to increase unless we deal with climate change and implement the land management changes that we need.”