Beyond 1984: Narrow focus on wildfire trends underestimates future risks to water security

October 29, 2018, Utah State University
Image from Strawberry River in Duchene County two months after 2018 Dollar Ridge Fire in Utah. The 4th largest wildfire in history resulted in river morphology by low severity fire and devastated fish habitat. Credit: Chris Brown/Utah State University

Dramatic increases in wildfire over the last few decades have garnered considerable media attention. Numerous headlines have claimed that the amount of wildfire in the western U.S. is unprecedented. However, in a recent issue of Earth's Future, published by the American Geophysical Union, Brendan Murphy, Larissa Yocom, and Patrick Belmont at the S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University compiled long-term fire datasets that demonstrate the amount of wildfire occurring in the western U.S. remains far below the acreage burning prior to pre-European settlement.

Specifically, these records show that historically 4 to 12 percent of the entire western U.S. would burn each year. Why does that matter? The authors argue that we need to view wildfire as an inevitable part of the future in the western U.S. Drying of western forests due to climate change coupled with the buildup of excess vegetation after decades of fire suppression have led to exceedingly low amounts of fire. This perspective will shift our assessment of fire liabilities and prevention and mitigation plans.

While the authors acknowledge the well-documented risk that wildfires pose to homes and structures, particularly those built in the wildland-urban interface, they highlight the less appreciated and underestimated risk that uncontrollable, high severity wildfires pose for water security. Further, they suggest that focusing on the amount of area burned is not enough to understand these complex issues.

"The annual amount of area burning can be informative for demonstrating that wildfires are on the rise with climate change, but alone, this metric is insufficient. If we hope to better predict the future risks wildfires pose to water resources and more effectively manage our ecosystems, then it is critical we give other wildfire attributes, specifically burn severity, more consideration." said Brendan Murphy, lead author and postdoctoral fellow in Watershed Science at USU.

Low severity wildfire benefits forest health and poses less risk to water infrastructure, so the authors argue we need to have more areas burning to reduce the frequency of catastrophic wildfires. This approach will require reducing restrictions on prescribed burns and 'managed' wildfires. Other forests naturally burn at high severity, and the authors argue that the best approach in these areas is to limit or eliminate development. The authors believe we need to adopt more widespread and effective management strategies for our forest and water resources. The critical first step will be realigning public perspectives about the past and future of .

Explore further: Warming climate could make wildfire-prone homes uninsurable

More information: Brendan P. Murphy et al, Beyond the 1984 perspective: narrow focus on modern wildfire trends underestimates future risks to water security, Earth's Future (2018). DOI: 10.1029/2018EF001006

Related Stories

Warming climate could make wildfire-prone homes uninsurable

June 28, 2018

On October 9, 2017, the Tubbs Fire ripped through Sonoma County, California, destroying nearly 5,000 homes and killing 22 people. It was the most destructive wildfire in California's history and the largest urban conflagration ...

Tackling wildfires in Mediterranean forests

October 27, 2017

Catastrophic forest fires claimed lives this summer across the world, from California to Portugal and Spain. The Mediterranean basin is a global wildfire hotspot and the threat of wildfires to forests and society is expected ...

Recommended for you

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.