Exceptionally hot and dry weather this summer has fueled dozens of wildfires across the western U.S., sending smoke across the country and threatening to register yet another record-breaking year of forest fires.
Drought and extreme heat are fueling massive forest fires in the West and making it tough to fight them. As of late July, the two largest wildfires — one in California, the other in Oregon — have burned forests the size of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago combined.
The Dixie Fire in California had scorched 240,795 acres. It threatened more than 10,000 structures in the region with more than 60 already destroyed. More than 7,800 residents across Butte and Plumas counties were ordered to evacuate.
The Bootleg Fire — the nation’s largest wildfire — was still raging in southern Oregon, burning 413,562 acres since igniting. The fire has destroyed more than 400 structures and at least 342 vehicles.
The extremely hot weather was only making the fight harder as the region has experienced spells of triple-digit heat. Nearly half of California is suffering exceptional drought.
With 83 wildfires burning in the U.S., President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with a group of Democratic and Republican governors whose states are struggling to fight the raging flames.
“We can’t ignore how the overlapping and intertwined factors— extreme heat, prolonged drought and supercharged wildfire conditions— are affecting the country. And so this is a challenge that demands our urgent, urgent action,” Biden said during the virtual meeting.
“There’s no human intervention that can save these forests if we don’t stop climate change,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. “All of us want more aerial assets, more bulldozers, more trained personnel, but it’s kind of like if there’s an arsonist at loose, and we have to corral the arsonist. We have to go on the offense.”
A team of scientists from leading research universities, conservation organizations and government laboratories across the West has produced a synthesis of the scientific literature that clearly lays out the established science and strength of evidence on climate change, wildfire and forest management for seasonally dry forests.
The goal is to give land managers and others across the West access to a unified resource that summarizes the best-available science so they can make decisions about how to manage their landscapes.
“Based on our extensive review of the literature and the weight of the evidence, the science of adaptive management is strong and justifies a range of time- and research-tested approaches to adapt forests to climate change and wildfires,” said co-lead author Susan Prichard, a research scientist in the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.
These approaches include some thinning of dense forests in fire-excluded areas, prescribed burning, reducing fuels on the ground, allowing some wildfires to burn in backcountry settings under favorable fuel and weather conditions, and revitalizing Indigenous fire stewardship practices. The findings were published Aug. 2 as an invited three-paper feature in the journal Ecological Applications.
“The substantial changes associated with more than a century of fire exclusion jeopardize forest diversity and keystone processes as well as numerous other social and ecological values including quantity and quality of water, stability of carbon stores, air quality, and culturally important resources and food security,” said co-lead author and UW researcher Keala Hagmann.