The AP has an interesting website about wildfires from 2002 to 2006. Each year, most wildfires occurred west of the Continental Divide. Many of these areas are forested. Others are desert or shortgrass prairie.
There are a lot of reasons for wildfires–climate and ecology, periodic droughts, humans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that in the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, the “vast majority” of wildfires are due to human activity. Many scientists expect climate change to increase wildfires.
Many wildfires affect land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. For most of the 1900s, the BLM had a policy of total fire suppression to protect valuable timber and private property.
Occasional burns were part of forest ecology. Fires came through, burning forest litter relatively quickly, then moving on or dying out. Healthy taller trees were generally unaffected; their branches were often out of the reach of flames and bark provided protection. Usually the fire moved on before trees had ignited. And some types of seeds required exposure to a fire to sprout.
Complete fire suppression allowed leaves, pine needles, brush, fallen branches, etc., to build up. Wildfires then became more intense and destructive: they were hotter, flames reached higher, and thicker layers of forest litter meant the fire lingered longer.
As a result, an uncontrolled wildfire was often more destructive. Trees were more likely to burn or to smolder and reignite a fire several days later. Hotter fires with higher flames are more dangerous to fight, and can also more easily jump naturally-occurring or artificial firebreaks. They may burn a larger area than they would otherwise, and thus do more of the damage that total fire suppression policies were supposed to prevent.
In the last few decades the BLM has recognized the importance of occasional fires in forest ecology. Fires are no longer seen as inherently bad. In some areas “controlled burns” are set to burn up some of the dry underbrush and mimic the effects of naturally-occurring fires.
But it’s not easy to undo decades of fire suppression. A controlled burn sometimes turns out to be hard to control, especially with such a buildup of forest litter. Property owners often oppose controlled burns because they fear the possibility of one getting out of hand. So the policy of fire suppression has in many ways backed forest managers into a corner: it led to changes in forests that make it difficult to change course now, even though doing so might reduce the destructive effects of wildfires when they do occur.
Given this, I’m always interested when wildfires are described as “natural disasters.” What makes something a natural disaster? The term implies a destructive situation that is not human-caused but rather emerges from “the environment.” As the case of wildfires shows, the situation is often more complex than this, because what appear to be “natural” processes are often affected by humans… and because we are, of course, part of the environment, despite the tendency to think of human societies and “nature” as separate entities.
Originally posted in 2010.Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
Meg — February 20, 2010
Fires are definitely part of our local ecology here. The parks here often have fires intentionally set to help keep larger wilder ones from happening. Except here we don't call them "controlled burns", that'd be a bit of hubris that the rangers don't care for. Here they're careful to call them "prescribed burns" and don't say otherwise unless you want to get a lecture from the ranger.
Of course, sometimes the fires are accidentally started or even maliciously started, but when there are big fires in the area it hardly matters how it started because it would have happened sooner or later, especially with the lightning we get in the area.
ben — February 20, 2010
There is an interesting field developing called Hazards Geography. It's basically the recognition that, like you said here, many disasters are influenced or constucted by human action, but also that even for 'random hazards' beyond human control, like earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis, there is a distinct human component to how people are affected.
The obvious current example is that if a 7.0 earthquake happened directly under San Francisco, while there would be plenty of devastation, the body count would still be an order of magnitude less than what we're looking at in Haiti. We see the exact same thing looking at death tolls when hurricanes strike Florida vs. poorer islands in the Atlantic. Richer people are safer from nature than poorer people.
But, on a different topic, despite being an urban geographer who generally hates nature, the class I accidentally took on forest fire management was the coolest class I ever took. Do you know that to start these control fires and to build firebreaks, they have flame throwers attached to helicopters? And in emergencies, they are not above flying a small aircraft right in front of the fireline, dropping explosives to suck all the oxygen out of the fire.
Jonathan — February 20, 2010
The forests of North America don't burn naturally. When humans came to North America, like when humans came to any place in the world, they brought fire. Humans like to burn things (considering we evolved to use fire, we'd have to). When humans are around we burn lots of things that wouldn't be burnt normally. This leads to the mass extinctions that always occurs when humans enter an area for the first time. Only the plants and animals that can survive frequent burnings are left. The Native Americans who had been here for between 10-15,000 years before Europeans had wildly altered the biosphere of North America. Things altered or created by humans aren't natural. Thus, unless you consider Native Americans inhuman, the ecosystem of North America was wholly artificial. Thus the propensity for wildfires is and always was artificial.
styleygeek — February 20, 2010
I live in Australia and I like this map here: http://www.weatherzone.com.au/stormtracker.jsp
If you switch on "bushfires" and "rain", it's usually the case at any given time that more of the country is on fire than is being rained on. It really turns on its head our assumptions about "normal" weather/events.
Amy — February 21, 2010
Also in Australia, I have heard that the importation of native Australian trees to California has driven some of the bushfires there. Some trees here produce amazing amounts of kindling and I can see how adding them to an environment that wasn't ready for it could be a bad thing.
“What is a ‘Natural’ Disaster?” « The Tiny Ouroboros — February 21, 2010
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oliviacw — February 21, 2010
Yes, the spread of Australian Eucalyptus trees in Northern California has been a major factor in the severity of fires in urban/wildlife boundary area. The Oakland hills fire in October 1991 burned over 1500 acres and destroyed over 3000 homes. It killed 20 people and injured 150. While there were many contributing factors to that fire (high winds, an extended dry season, infrastructure issues, etc), one significant factor was the number of Eucalytpus trees planted in close proximity to native grassland (where the fire began) and closely-spaced homes. The Eucalyptus trees and their sheddings (dropped leaves and bark curls) caught fire quickly and blew easily in the high winds, setting fire to roofs and structures hundreds of feet away.
"Wild Fires" Not a natural disaster… « Christopher A. Haase — March 4, 2010
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Bill R — July 18, 2015
Oppenheimer and Teller, the H-bomb guys, feared American cities would be bombed by the Soviets, leaving us annihilated, and convinced Eisenhower to build-out the highway system so Americans could live and prosper outside cities, and thereby survive an aggressive attack. Out there in the wilderness Americans were exposed to non-human-aided wildfires and didn't take to them well. That led to Smokey the Bear and the kind fire suppression described in this article, which is why all those big wildfires now kinda stop at the US/Mexican border (they don't get them...).
Ultimately, we can blame the Germans I guess.