We need to adapt to wildfires, because they are becoming as inevitable as floods and droughts.

Wildfires are increasing in size and severity. Photo: Shutterstock

Wildfires are an inevitable part of the American west, and, according to a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they’ve been increasing in frequency and severity since the 1970s. A record-breaking fire near Boulder, Colorado, that forced 1,000 people to evacuate their homes in March of 2017 is a prime example. Low humidity, high temperatures, and strong winds strengthened the fire, which fortunately was quickly contained. But the reality of a wildfire this early in the year has caused concerns about how to handle the risk and reality of wildfires in the western United States.

Over the past 40 years, the American west has seen an average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, which has resulted in a wildfire season some three months longer. On top of that, more people are living near wildfire-prone areas, which is increasing the risk of damage.

The pattern of larger, hotter fires, along with homes being built in high-risk areas, has contributed to the cost and danger of wildfires.

There are a number of tools that have historically been used to control wildfire, but according to a new paper, that’s more or less a losing battle.

“Wildfire is catching up to us,” said study lead author Tania Schoennagel of CU Bolder. “We’re learning our old tools aren’t enough and we need to approach wildfire differently.”

The researchers behind the paper have made a number of suggestions on this front, but there are a lot of things that need to change in order for society to better adapt to wildfires, from building permits to federal and state tax law. In addition, it’s important to get ahead of wildfires by doing controlled burns to thin undergrowth in high-risk areas, and possibly even letting wildfires burn largely unimpeded in wildland areas.

“We have to learn that wildfire is inevitable, in the same way that droughts and flooding are,” said Schoennagel. “We’ve tried to control fire, but it’s not a control we can maintain. Like other natural disasters, we have to learn to adapt.”