How Wildfires Affect the Economy and You

How Climate Change Worsens the Cost of Wildfires

Wildfire
••• Out of control wildfire burns down a Malibu, California, hillside towards homes and businesses along the Pacific Coast Highway.

 Photo by Kim Kulish/Getty Images

The frequency of western U.S. wildfires has increased by 400 percent since 1970. Damaging wildfires have occurred in recent years in places like California, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.  These fires are burning six times the land area as before, and lasting five times longer. To make matters worse, the fire season is lasting longer, allowing more time for fires to erupt.

The 2018 North American fire season is already 25 percent worse than during the same time period in 2017.

As of July 1, 2018, at least 60 wildfires burned more than 504,000 acres. The Northern California County fire grew to 60,000 acres in its first three days. At the same time, eight wildfires were burning across Colorado and six in Utah.

The 2017 fire season was one of the most destructive in recent history. It broke numerous regional records for acreage burned and costs incurred. It burnt 9.1 million acres in the United States. The other areas at risk are forests in Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia.  Recent wildfire intensity and frequency is worse now than it’s been in the past 10,000 years.

The U.S. Forest Service spent almost $2.5 billion, much more than the $1.4 billion spent in 2016.  Firefighting consumed 52 percent of its budget. It leaves little for forest management, capital improvements, and research. At the peak of the season, more than 280,000 personnel and 1,900 fire engines were deployed.

The Air National Guard had to help, dropping 530,000 gallons of fire retardant. 

The biggest reason for the cost increase is that fires are getting bigger. As of November 24, 2017, the average size was almost 175 acres. The prior record, in 2015, was slightly more than 140 acres. Before 2005, fires burned less than 100 acres.

Another reason is that 33 percent of houses are near a forest. They increase the cost of wildfire protection. In 2015, wildfires caused $14.3 billion in real estate damage.

They are also more destructive. Fires burn at fierce temperatures, consuming all nutrients and vegetation in an entire forest. This total devastation leaves little to grow back.

Wildfires also increase greenhouse gases, as the fires burn carbon stored in the trees and plants. For example, forest fires in Indonesia in 2015 released twice as many greenhouse gases as Germany emitted in 2014. Once destroyed, those trees are no longer around to absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

Forest fires were so monstrous that they pushed smoke into the Earth's stratosphere. It circled the globe within two weeks and remained there for months. The impact is comparable to a moderate volcanic eruption.

Causes

There are four reasons for the growing severity of wildfires. They are rising temperatures, shorter winters, more pests, and drought. All four are caused by climate change.

Rising temperatures increase evaporation. The atmosphere draws more moisture from soils, making the land drier.

Shorter winters means there is less snow. That releases a smaller amount of melting snow in the spring.

That also dries the soil. 

A shorter winter also means that many pests, such as the pine bark beetle, don’t die off in the winter. As a result, they are killing and weakening millions of trees. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 100,000 beetle-infested trees fall daily. This level of damage has never before been seen in U.S. recorded history. It provides dry fuel for forest fires.

Drought is a reduction in precipitation over an extended period. It’s most people's biggest climate change worry, according to a Pew Research Study. In 2012, more than 80 percent of the United States experienced abnormally dry conditions.

Climate change creates more severe droughts through a vicious cycle. Greenhouse gas emissions trap heat, causing air temperatures to increase. The hot air absorbs more moisture, resulting in less rain.

Hotter air also increases evaporation from lakes and rivers, reducing water sources. Without rainfall, the plants that retain moisture in the soil die. The bare earth creates even drier conditions. When it does rain, water just runs off without absorbing into the water table. Dead vegetation, warmer air, and decreased rainfall also increase the frequency and severity of wildfires.  

Wildfire Forecast

If climate change isn't arrested, the wildfire threat will increase. By 2030, the United States will be measurably drier. By 2050, the American Southwest and Great Plains will experience a megadrought, according to scientists at Cornell University. The drought will last 50 years. It will be similar to droughts that occurred in the region during the 12th and 13th centuries, but it will be entirely man-made, a consequence of global warming.

By 2030, 55 percent of the Amazon rainforest could be destroyed. Twenty percent of the Amazon has already been destroyed.

Solutions to Wildfires

Government policies can solve the short-term wildfire problem. In forest fire regions, there should be no planting of easily flammable tree species such as eucalyptus and pine. For example, Portugal suffered tremendous wildfires after it allowed farmers to plant fire-prone eucalyptus to replace fire-resistant cork oaks.

Governments should not allow human development in pristine forests. New forest roads increase the likelihood of human-caused fires.

Medium-term, governments can promote policies that conserve water. These include waste-water recycling, desert landscaping, and low-flow appliances. They should also reverse subsidy policies that encourage thirsty crops like cotton. Instead, direct subsidies toward crops like prickly pear.

Long-term, the government must stop climate change to reduce wildfires. Nations must cap the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the Earth's atmosphere. Once that is done, carbon emissions trading can encourage businesses to adhere to the cap. A carbon tax can punish them if they do not.