Are Wildfires More Dangerous Because Of Man-Made Climate Change?

Man-made climate change has resulted in weather phenomena we’ve never seen before, and scientists believe it will only get worse the longer we pump warming gases into the atmosphere. We know that climate change is a big factor in the increasing number of wildfires, in particular those seen in the Western United States over the last few years. But are fires in general more dangerous because of man-made climate change?

Sometimes.

According to recent research on wildfires, they scorch at least twice the number of square miles today as they did nearly fifty years ago. That’s not all: the season during which these fires ravage our forests lasts about two and a half months longer than it once did. That’s a huge difference in the amount of carbon these fires put into our atmosphere. 

Why is this the case? Well, even though average global temperatures may only rise a degree or two in the coming decades, that’s the global average and it says nothing about regional averages — which may fall or rise much more than that. If the Western United States temperatures increased only a single degree Celsius, scientists believe the average forest fire would burn a much larger area (upwards of 600 percent in some cases). 

Native Americans used to use controlled burns to reduce the risk of fire and, therefore, the overall danger it posed to their tribes both big and small. Modern techniques are much the opposite: instead of using controlled burns to reduce the chance of a larger fire, we try to eliminate the threat completely. Counterintuitively, this results in bigger, longer lasting, and much more dangerous wildfires. And they’re only getting worse because of climate change.

About 80 percent of these fires are the result of careless campers, hikers, or other people. Even though the climate is a big factor, an increasing population can contribute as well. These fires cost many lives, and billions of dollars in damage from lost homes and destabilized infrastructure.

Those fires that burn hotter and for longer than those in the past will become much more dangerous to those who live in the affected regions. It’s important to note, of course, that not all fires will be bigger and more dangerous. It depends on a number of factors such as average temperature and how long drying foliage has gone without rain. Because some regions will experience lower temperatures, the risk and overall danger of fire may actually go down.