AS LONG AS humans have had fire, they have tried to bend it to their will. Native Americans set small fires for centuries to clear underbrush from forests or open up pasturelands. Later, European settlers purposely burned perimeters around their settlements to protect them from unexpected wildfires. In the late 19th century, private timberland owners organized the first groups to fight wildfires, often structured as cooperatives. In the American West, members paid dues based on acreage owned, the proceeds of which were used to protect timber stands from flames. By the turn of the 20th century, more than a dozen states had programs devoted to fighting wildfires.
But the federal government soon became entrenched as both forest owner and wildfire fighter. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt led the charge to establish the U.S. Forest Service, a quintessential Progressive Era agency that oozed with faith in centralized management. During his two terms, Roosevelt used presidential power previously granted by Congress to drastically increase the size of federal forests, setting aside tens of millions of acres. A large and lethal fire season in 1910 brought political salience to the destructive potential of wildfires, and the government stepped in. An agency publication summed up its stance at the time: “Protecting the Nation’s wildlands from fire was one of the new agency’s greatest responsibilities since, in the words of the new Forest Service, only the Federal Government can ‘give the help so urgently needed.’”
More than a century later, wildfires remain an urgent problem, and the feds’ help simply isn’t doing the job. Wildfires are getting bigger and more devastating, and muddled incentives are making a bad situation worse. The root of the problem is the idea that the federal government will show up virtually anywhere, anytime, to try to put out wildfires, regardless of the cost or effort required. Federal spending on wildfires has doubled in real terms over the past decade and grown fivefold since the late 1990s. Wildfire-related costs have consumed the majority of the Forest Service’s budget for years, prompting the common quip that the agency should be renamed the “Fire Service.” The implied federal guarantee of firefighting-no-matter-what signals to residents that it’s perfectly fine to build and live in fire-prone areas. Yet nudging more people to live in high-risk places has increased the potential for catastrophe.
FIRES ARE GETTING WORSE
FOR MOST OF the 20th century, the prevailing stance of the federal government was that fires should be extinguished as aggressively and quickly as possible. It pursued this goal with lookout towers and networks of fire detectors that even included rural mail carriers. In the 1930s, the approach was embodied by the “10 a.m. rule”—the idea that all wildfires should be under control by that time the day following detection. By 1939, the Forest Service had developed units of parachuting smokejumpers to rapidly respond when fires did ignite, and by 1944, it had rolled out Smokey Bear to educate everyday Americans about fire prevention. The idea that all wildfire should be snuffed out held sway through much of the second half of the 20th century and remains a popular notion today.
But decades of demonizing fire hasn’t always helped. For various types of forests and landscapes, fire is a positive force, rejuvenating grasses and soils and keeping vegetation in check. Ponderosa pine trees need regular fire to thrive, for example. But while frequent, low-intensity fire brings ecological benefits—something well understood by countless timber owners in the Southeast who carry out controlled burns annually—a landscape that hasn’t seen fire regularly is much more likely to suffer a large and intense one once it finally comes. Decades of suppression have left many Western forests choked with dense stands of small-diameter trees, underbrush, and other growth. This has contributed to high fire risk in many places today and partially accounts for why wildfires in the West are getting worse over time.
Before 2000, wildfires generally destroyed a few hundred structures in the United States each year. From 2000 to 2010, that rose to roughly 3,000 or 4,000—a big jump. Then, in 2018, nearly 25,000 structures burned. According to insurer Munich Re, economic damage from Western wildfires has surged for several years, now totaling $10–$20 billion annually. In California, seven of the 10 most destructive fires in state history have occurred in the past five years. In 2020, fires in the West killed 47 people, destroyed 18,000 structures, cost $3.6 billion in suppression efforts, and caused $16 billion in damage. The season was notable for how much damage extended beyond California to Oregon, Colorado, and Washington.
Unfortunately, many predict the bad trends will get worse. Climate change has contributed to making many forests and other Western landscapes drier for longer. (About 40 percent of the acreage burned by wildfires since 1984 has been in forests, while the majority has been shrublands or grasslands.) Western fire seasons have lengthened by an average of 60–80 days over the last three decades. In some places, the fire “season” is no longer a season at all but a year-round concern. Insect and disease infestations have also left dead trees on millions of acres of forests, compounding the risk created by a century of striving to zealously put out every fire.
But the most fundamental reason wildfires are becoming a bigger problem is that there are now more homes and people in harm’s way. In recent decades, the area where houses meet forests and other wild vegetation has grown by one-third—and it’s not because the forests are encroaching. The footprint of such areas, which researchers call the “wildland-urban interface,” represents the fastest-growing type of land use in the contiguous United States. It now contains more than 43 million homes covering a total area larger than Texas.
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