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Kraft: Climate change, home construction near forests are most likely causes of wildfires

A fire blazes in Arizona's Tonto National Forest,

A fire blazes in Arizona's Tonto National Forest, near Payson, Ariz. (May 12, 2012) Credit: AP

GREEN BAY, Wis. - Wildfires in the West this year were unusually numerous, large and damaging. They were sparked by long-lasting heat waves and drought that created what experts called "epic dryness," in combination with lightning strikes and high winds. The resulting fires raged throughout the Southwest and many other areas in the West.

The 2012 fire season was one of the worst in decades. More than 8 million acres of forests burned, hundreds of homes were lost - more than 600 in Colorado alone, thousands of people had their lives disrupted, and at least six were killed, including a 20-year old firefighter in Idaho.

The massive economic and human toll prompts two questions: why are we seeing more devastation today and what might be done to reduce severe wildfires in the future?

There are no easy answers to either question. Nonetheless, there is abundant evidence that both the frequency of big wildfires and the length of the fire season have increased in recent years. What is behind this pattern?

Some put the blame on federal environmental policies that have reduced logging on U.S. forest lands. Logging has indeed declined substantially over the past several decades. Still, it is not at all clear that reduced harvesting of trees is responsible for the wildfires. We need to look elsewhere for the major causes of increased fire risk.

One is surely a slowly changing climate that is bringing higher temperatures, reduced rainfall and drier conditions throughout the West. This makes the forests more vulnerable to fires initiated by lightning strikes or human activities.

Another reason is the changing nature of land use and home construction near national forests. People have moved closer to the forests, bringing with them power lines and machinery, such as construction equipment, that can spark forest fires. These settlement patterns also increase the risk of fires caused by careless human behavior, such as smoking or use of motorized vehicles in vulnerable areas.

Many forest professionals point as well to the suppression of natural fires that historically have cleared out underbrush and prevented the growth of dense forests. Without the benefit of small, natural fires, we now have larger fires that are more difficult to control and more damaging.

What might be done to reduce the risk of forest fires? We could do more to reduce release of greenhouses gases through a variety of actions, such as improving energy efficiency and relying more on non-carbon energy sources. With further technical progress, they can be developed with minimal cost and inconvenience.

We also could better manage national forests through carefully designed thinning of trees and brush and use of prescribed burning that could reduce the incidence of catastrophic fires without excessively harming forest ecosystems.

Spending more money on training of Forest Service personnel would help as well. While such actions might not be cheap, the cost is less than the economic toll of severe wildfires of the kind we have seen this year.

In addition, we could do more to encourage sensible development of land close to national forests. Public education, greater use of community wildfire protection plans and adoption of improved zoning laws and building codes could limit home development in locations where it increases fire risk.

Meeting such needs could better protect those homes that are built in fire-prone areas. For example, metal roofs on homes would lower the risk of ignition from wildfires and adequate standards for fire protection water supplies and access roads would facilitate the work of fire-fighting crews.

In today's polarized political climate, some will blame environmental laws for severe wildfires. However, more convincing explanations can be found elsewhere. If we truly seek to limit wildfires and their harsh consequences, we need to understand those other causes and design multifaceted and realistic solutions.

Michael E. Kraft is the Herbert Fisk Johnson professor emeritus of public and environmental affairs and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.