Alberta Wildfire Offers Further Proof that a Warming Climate, Not Forest Management, is Behind Worsening Fires in the West

May 11, 2016

By Center for Western Priorities

As the summer wildfire season approaches in the Rocky Mountains, Westerners are looking north to the alarming wildfire that has scorched nearly 900 square miles in Alberta. The photographs and videos of the massive wildfire are another stark reminder that wildfires are becoming bigger, hotter, and less predictable.

Some argue that a simple solution to the American West’s fire problem is disposing of U.S. public lands into state and private hands. But that will hurt, not help. There’s no silver bullet solution to growing fire threats, but it does help to have the facts straight:

1) A warming climate has created longer and hotter fire seasons

  • Wildfires in the West, which were once only common during the summer months, are starting earlier and lasting longer. In 2016, Alaska saw its first fires in February and major wildfires have already impacted California, Arizona, and New Mexico. (New York Times, April 2016)
  • A changing climate has created favorable conditions for wildfire. Warmer temperatures, increased drought, and shorter winters are all compounding factors. (Time, May 2016)
  • In the United States, nine of the worst fire seasons since 1960—by acres burned—have occurred since 2000. And, 2015 was the largest fire season on record since at least 1960, with more than ten million acres burned. (National Interagency Fire Center, 2016)

2) More and more people are living in fire-prone areas

  • With more people moving into fire-prone areas, fighting wildfire has become more complicated and expensive as fire fighters prioritize protecting private property. (Pew Trusts, August 2013).
  • The cost the U.S. government pays annually to protect communities and suppress wildfire has more than tripled since the 1990s. (Headwaters Economics, June 2013)

3) Modern federal land management is NOT the cause of intensifying wildfire

  • Scientists established long ago that wildfire is natural and healthy for Western forests. But, a history of suppressing wildfire has led to many of the forest health challenges currently facing the West, including a buildup of underbrush. (National Public Radio, July 2013)
  • The United States cannot log itself out of this challenge. It’s underbrush, not logs that’s causing part of the threat. Yet, land disposal advocates have held up Canada, where the current fire is raging—which logs its forests much more intensively—as a model for the United States to mimic. (Property and Environment Research Center, 2006)
  • Despite management differences, like the United States, Canada experienced “historically devastating” wildfires in 2015. And experts are concerned that 2016 could be even worse. (Global News, May 2016)

4) Congress needs to give the U.S. Forest Service the tools to restore Western forests and fight wildfire, but political intransigence is getting in the way

  • The U.S. Forest Service is spending a growing percentage of its budget on fire suppression. In 1995, wildfire costs consumed 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget. In 2015, it consumed 52 percent of the budget and is projected to consume 67 percent of the budget by 2025. (U.S. Forest Service, August 2015)
  • The law currently requires the Forest Service to pay for all wildfire costs out of its own budget rather than giving the agency access to separate disaster funds for the worst and most expensive fires. Each year when the costs of fighting wildfire exceed what the Forest Service has budgeted, the agency is forced to transfer funds from other critical programs to pay the costs. This means less money for forest restoration, trail maintenance, and watershed health improvements. (Congressman Mike Simpson)
  • There is a solution to this problem in the form of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act or WDFA. What differentiates WDFA from so many pieces of legislation in today’s hyper-partisan Congress is that it has significant bipartisan support. (Center for Western Priorities, September 2015)
  • In fact, 66 Republicans and 81 Democrats currently sponsor or cosponsor the legislation. But Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) has refused to consider the bill, which would almost certainly pass. (Congress.Gov)

Photo: Near Highway 63 in Fort McMurray by DarrenRD, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0