The wildfires consuming the U.S. West Coast have damaged so much land that 2017 is measuring up to be one of the worst wildfire seasons in the history of the country. California, Utah, Montana, Idaho, and Washington state have all experienced evacuations, fear, and shock as the fires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres. Oregon and Washington State alone have had over 20 fires, while nearly 1,400 Burbank, California residents have lost their homes to the flames. Cottonwood, Idaho briefly became the location of the nation’s worst air quality, and Montana residents described the frenzy of barely escaping the fires in time. In addition to the extensive damage across five states, the bulk of these fires started after early September, a time when wildfire season is normally winding down for the year. A growing pattern of wildfires increasing in severity suggests this could be the new norm.
Currently within the scientific community, there are two main explanations as to why forest fires have been on the rise in recent decades. One argument suggests that the cause is due to how the land has been used in the Western U.S. since the early 20th century. Forests were cleared so that land could be developed, mined, and grazed by livestock – all large industries that prioritized profit over the surrounding ecosystems. The clearing of old-growth trees is particularly damaging, as these older trees are more fire resistant, and are taller, allowing the forest canopy to survive above the flames. These trees are often replaced with younger trees, which are shorter and closer to the ground, providing ample fuel for a wildfire. In addition to these activities, fire suppression methods of naturally-occurring fires became increasingly efficient during the 20th century. While suppressing fires may sound like a positive, these natural fires are responsible for change in forest composition, as well as maintaining biodiversity in the habitat. Suppressing these periodic, naturally-occurring fires, combined with the clearing of forests and removal of old-growth trees results in larger, longer burning wildfires that are more difficult to control.
The second argument states that the growing number of wildfires is primarily because of climate change. Since 1970, the average temperature of the Western United States has risen by nearly 2°F. While it may seem like an unnoticeable change, this temperature increase is double the rate of the global average, playing directly into the occurrence of forest fires. The steady rise in temperature has caused a domino effect of snowpack melting up to four weeks earlier, resulting in shorter winters and earlier springs. The longer, drier summers that follow have created the ideal conditions for larger and more frequent wildfires. A 2008 study published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire found that Yosemite National Park is experiencing a rise in the number of forest fires, despite being protected from industries such as logging and development. This indicates that climate change plays a large role in the increasing frequency of wildfires.
The number of forest fires burning an area greater than 1,000 acres per year has surged from 140 fires during the 1980s to 250 as of 2012. Furthermore, the average length of wildfire season has increased an additional two or more months since the 1970s. By 2050, it is estimated that the average temperature of the Western United States will have increased another 2.5 – 6.5°F. This will further lengthen the average wildfire season, allowing fires to burn longer, and a greater area than is currently being experienced.
The Union of Concerned Scientists recommends taking action by establishing buffer zones between populated areas and vulnerable forests, ending deforestation, reducing emissions and spreading education and awareness to better prepare for natural disasters. While these ideas are a step in the right direction to help reduce wildfires in the United States, they fall short of addressing the larger problem: capitalism. In a capitalist society such as the U.S., environmental concerns are addressed in the form of small reforms or monetary incentives to reward large corporations for going “green.”
Poor land management practices and climate change, the two main causes of the increasing severity of wildfires, are only exacerbated by capitalism. Time and again, it has been found that capitalism across the globe is not sustainable, and does not provide any promising long term solutions to the host of human-induced environmental decay. Socialism is the only system that prioritizes the needs of the people and environment before profit, while addressing environmental concerns organized around a sustainable future for all.