For those who live in areas subject to fire, few things can be more frightening. Join Active Minds as we address the issue of wildfires from a variety of perspectives. We will take a look at how fires are fought once they are burning and the role of forest policy, weather, and the impacts of climate change. We’ll also look at the role of fire in nature and how areas have recovered from devastating burns.

Key Lecture Points

  • Fire is a natural part of forest ecology, playing a rejuvenating role in keeping forests healthy. Past forestry practices and the dry, hot weather attributed to climate change have created dense and flammable underbrush that ignites into wildfires more often and burns for longer periods, at hotter temperatures, consuming larger areas and creating a longer fire season. Wildfires of a size and intensity that only a decade ago were rare are now almost an annual occurrence.
  • After the 1910 “Big Burn” that devastated 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia and killed 87 people, the US Forest Service adopted a fire policy of total suppression, which would be adopted by other Federal Agencies, including the National Park Service, established in 1916. This policy remained in place until the 1960s when the Park Service stepped back from a total suppression policy and instead said that fires that started naturally would be allowed to burn themselves out without intervention as long as they didn’t threaten lives or property. Additionally, the Park Service used controlled burns to remove excessive brush and to thin overcrowded trees and thus prevent more destructive fires. This new policy of fire management was gradually adopted by other federal, state, and local agencies.
  • As the wildland-urban interface (WUI) continues to grow, more Americans are living close to forests and in fire-prone areas, putting at risk their homes, their lives, and the lives of firefighters when wildfires strike. The WUI has seen exponential growth for the period of 1990-2010, experiencing a 43% increase or about 8 million new homes. The WUI in the conterminous United States covers 277668 square miles (9% of land area) and contains 44.8 million housing units (39% of all houses). California has the highest number of WUI housing units (5.1 million). The most damaging wildfires have occurred in the last few years, accounting for 62% of the structures lost over the last 15 years. Nationwide, approximately 89% of wildfires are human caused. In California, that number is approximately 94%.
  • With more people building in fire-prone areas, the cost of fighting wildfires has more than tripled—a cost being paid by taxpayers. This cost has risen from less than $1billion in 2010 to over $4 billion in 2021. This raises the question as to whether society should be expected to pay for an individual’s decision to live in a fire-prone area and how much responsibility should be placed on the home owner for mitigation and fire prevention efforts.

Discussion Questions

  • How has our approach to fighting wildfires changed and why?
  • Why are wildfires more prevalent?
  • What policies would reduce the threat of wildfires?
  • Who should pay for fire mitigation and damage in the wildland-urban interface?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Szmyt, Janusz. Forest Fire. Intechopen, 2018. 162 pages. This book concerns the different aspects of forest fires, the impact of fire on both forest resources (e.g. forest cover) and communities that use different forest functions.
    Click here to order
  • Omi, Phillip. Forest Fires: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO. 2005. 368 pages. This book explores the historical, ecological, economic, and social dimensions of wildland combustion and their impacts in North America.
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  • Winchester, Simon. Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World. London, UK: Harper Perennial, 2021. 464 pages. While not only about wildfires, this book also explores global historical land use and the influences and policies that dictate them with a concise section on Australian Aboriginal fire management practices.
    Click here to order