The alarming western wildfires of 2020 are unprecedented, but not surprising. They are the inarguable, long-predicted outcome of the climate crisis, which has steadily weakened our forests, leaving them dangerously dried out and laced with dead and dying trees. Climate change has doubled wildfire risk across the West in recent decades. By 2050 — just 30 years away — the annual area burned is predicted to increase by up to 600%.
The present infernos are exacerbated by over a century of fire suppression policy, which aims to extinguish all forest fires, even low-intensity, natural burns. Yet many forests have evolved to thrive with frequent, moderate blazes, including prescribed fire managed by foresters. Deprived of sufficient “good fire,” many western forests are overgrown, which makes them less healthy and more vulnerable to damaging extreme fires.
The result is a disaster for all Americans.
American Forests is calling for a two-pronged approach to tackle the crisis in western forests. First, we urge political leaders to pass comprehensive climate policy to slash greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of our economy. Climate change is the underlying driver of this emergency.
Second, we are calling for public land management agencies in western states to rapidly advance climate-informed forestry to build forests’ resilience to a hotter, drier climate. Roughly two-thirds of western forests are owned by the public, and offer immediate opportunities for boosting forest health.
These opportunities fall into two categories:
Restoring the health of existing forests
We must change the structure and composition of our forests to prepare them for extreme climate conditions. These actions include:
- Rapid implementation of prescribed fire, at scale, using appropriate safety techniques.
- Targeted thinning of overgrown forests and removal of hazardous fuels — such as dead trees and dense underbrush — especially in areas with high severe fire potential.
- Climate-smart management of all forests to favor more resilient tree species and forest structure. This is important now that extreme wildfire risk is spreading to new areas.
It may seem counter-intuitive to call for more fire during a wildfire crisis. But low-intensity fires — including prescribed burns — benefit forest health by controlling invasive plant species, clearing fire-prone underbrush and preventing trees from crowding too close together. American Forests’ comprehensive prescribed fire proposal, set to be released this fall, will detail how this can be accomplished safely and without compromising public health.
Reforesting burned areas
Large, severe wildfires can kill off even mature trees, preventing a forest from regenerating naturally. Severely burned areas need to be replanted with seedlings, or risk the permanent conversion of these areas to fire-prone landscapes of shrubs and grasses. Public land managers must dramatically increase the rate of reforestation on burn scars, catching up and keeping up with the growing backlog of acres in need of replanting. At the same time, these managers need to commit to climate-informed tree planting techniques. This means using science to select the right tree species, genetics and planting techniques so replanted forests can better withstand wildfire, drought and other climate-driven threats.
These actions will require commitment, including public funding to advance needed forestry actions on public lands. American Forests will work with agencies and elected officials to help identify and enact needed policy changes, like passage of the bipartisan REPLANT Act.
So far, this summer’s wildfires have claimed at least 35 lives, burned over 4 million acres and destroyed thousands of houses and other structures. Flames have incinerated entire watersheds — risking regional water supplies — and devastated wildlife habitat. From smoke inhalation to the loss of beloved landscapes, this crisis has done immeasurable harm to Americans’ mental and physical health.
And, with four more months left in the fire season, the worst may be yet to come.
The cost of inaction is unthinkable. Our elected leaders must act now, or face the inevitable and escalating loss of lives, communities and forests as the climate crisis intensifies. There is no easy way out of this emergency — only through it. Together we can take the actions needed to protect our communities and our natural resources, and help turn the tide on the climate crisis.
American Forests extends its heartfelt support to our fellow Americans in western states affected by another record-breaking year of wildfires. We feel deeply what these events have wrought. American Forests expresses our deep gratitude to the women and men who are battling these blazes and keeping communities safe.