Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Flames from the Bear wildfire near Oroville, California leap into the air as a police officer watches from his vehicle on September 9, 2020. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

A law enforcement officer watches flames leap into the air as wildfires continued to spread near Oroville, California on September 9, 2020. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Stark New Visualizations Show How Climate Change Is Fueling Worsening Western Wildfires

"We're seeing more wildfires, more acres burned, and longer, more intense fire seasons," says the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

Brett Wilkins

A new report and visualizations from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows how climate change is fueling more intense and an increasing number of wildfires across the western United States, concluding that better forest management and climate action are the best tools to help limit future fire risks.

"Every year, millions of acres of land are consumed by fire in the United States," the group says in a report published earlier this week. "By raising temperatures, melting snow sooner, and drying soils and forests, climate change is fueling the problem."

"Since 2015, the United States has experienced, on average, roughly 100 more large wildfires every year than the year before," the UCS report continues. "This changes region by region, and year to year, but generally we're seeing more wildfires, more acres burned, and longer, more intense fire seasons."

The report highlights the human and economic costs of worsening wildfires, noting that "between 2014 and 2018 the federal government spent an average of $2.4 billion fighting fires every year." That's more than twice as much as was spent on firefighting two decades earlier.

Then there's the climate cost. "As the forests burn, they release carbon dioxide and other global warming gases, worsening climate change," according to UCS. "As wildfires burn more land, emissions go up."

While fires have always been a part of the natural landscape, "warmer temperatures increase the likelihood that fires will burn more intensely [and] also cause snow to melt sooner, and lead to drier soils, forests, and plants, which act as kindling."

"Increased droughts, unusual rain patterns, and insect outbreaks that lead to large stands of dead trees are also connected with climate change—and they all make wildfires more likely," the report continues.

Ironically, the report says that fire suppression efforts are contributing to worsening wildfires.

"Forests historically evolved with frequent, low-intensity fires that removed underbrush, debris, and fallen timber," it states. "This allowed for larger trees and made massive fires much less common."

"But for the past century, almost all fires have been suppressed, even small ones," it adds. "This has allowed forests to maintain denser growth and more potential fuel, leading to larger and more intense wildfires."

The report says that while "ecologically sound fire management could help limit fire risks" in the near term, "in the long term, climate action is the best tool we have."

"When we reduce global warming emissions, we slow the growth of climate risks, including wildfire," the report concludes. "Until then, summers will continue getting hotter, forests will get drier, and more and more people will face the threat of wildfire."

The UCS report comes amid worsening wildfires not only in North America, but around the world. In the western U.S., entire towns in Oregon have been destroyed by the ferocious conflagrations, and the death toll from California fires—some of the biggest of which are burning completely out of controlrose to at least seven on Thursday, a day after smoke from the infernos turned skies an apocalyptic shade of orange in the San Francisco Bay Area. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Warnock Defeats Walker in Georgia, Giving Democrats 51-49 Senate Majority

"Tonight, the people—young, Black, Brown, and working people—expanded the Senate majority, neutralized the power of Joe Manchin, and defeated yet another fascist," the Sunrise Movement cheered.

Brett Wilkins ·


'About Damn Time': NY Jury Finds Trump Organization Guilty on All Counts of Tax Fraud

"Today's guilty verdict against the Trump Organization shows that we will hold individuals and organizations accountable when they violate our laws to line their pockets," said New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Brett Wilkins ·


Oxfam Rebukes EU Over Delayed Deal on Global Minimum Corporate Tax

"This is a loss to ordinary people who are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis and a win to the ultra-profitable corporations," said the group's tax expert for the bloc.

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Biodiversity Summit Called 'Make-or-Break Moment' for Wildlife

"The deluded dreams of billionaires aside, there is no Planet B," said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. "We must fix the world we have."

Julia Conley ·


Congressional Progressives, Climate Activists Rally Against Manchin's 'Dirty Deal'

"As if spending $847 billion on the military-industrial complex wasn't bad enough," said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, "now they want to add sacrificing frontline communities for polluter profits to the package?"

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo