Fire is a natural force with which trees and ecosystems evolved. However, climate change has combined with other factors to cause wildfires to become a major hazard to communities and the natural resources they rely on. This is because climate change is weakening and killing forests with a synergistic combination of increased aridity and heat, elevated pest and disease activity and growth in fuel load, all of which feed into more extensive and extreme wildfire. Climate change has already doubled wildfire extent since the mid-1980s and increased risk factors by 50%.
The future is playing out before our eyes as 2050 projections for wildfire extent in California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment are on the scale of what occurred in 2020.
We can expect the situation to worsen in coming years. For each degree Celsius of warming, we are likely to see a 200–400% increase in wildfire extent in the West, with up to a 600% increase by mid-century if carbon emissions continue unabated. One hundred and ten years ago, the “Big Burn” stirred the national consciousness and set a well-intentioned but flawed policy agenda of an aggressive pursuit of absolute fire exclusion from ecosystems adapted to and shaped by fire. Combined with climate change and other factors, fire exclusion policy is a significant contributor to the forest health crises we are now facing.
At least one estimate suggests that 26% of national forests (55.4 million acres) are rated as being in “poor” or “very poor” condition, requiring some type of treatment or natural disturbance to shift degraded conditions to at least “moderate.” As much as 60% of California forests and 40% of dry forest types in Oregon and Washington are significantly departed from their natural fire regime and require modifying forest structure and reintroducing fire.
The climate-fueled wildfire threat is most acute in western states, but it’s rising nationwide, including in diverse eastern landscapes like the southeast and New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Restoring America’s Forests for Wildfire Resilience in a Changing Climate: Organizational Strategy and Policy Agenda articulates American Forests’ organizational strategy to advance wildfire resilience across our nation’s forests through climate-informed forestry, including policy shifts to facilitate and fund needed actions. This must be complemented by comprehensive action on climate change across all sectors, because climate change is the underlying driver of our wildfire crisis.
To address this crisis, American Forests is calling for a forest wildfire policy framework that:
- Addresses, over the next 5 to 10 years, wildfire threats to communities and high-value infrastructure such as drinking water source areas,
- Focuses long-range landscape-scale prioritization, work planning and resource allocation over the next 10 to 20 years,
- Expands funding and capacity for cross-boundary public-private partnerships for large “all lands” projects,
- Ramps up development of science-management partnerships to advance climate-informed forestry, including the deployment of prescribed fire and managed wildfire at scale,
- Advances science-based climate-informed forest regeneration in fire scars, and
- Creates a 21st-century forestry workforce to help our forests and communities adapt to climate change and find their capacity for resilience.