Wildfires are an increasing threat in the United States.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports wildfires caused $81.6 billion in damage in from 2017 to 2021, a nearly 10-fold increase from 2012 to 2016, when damages totaled $8.6 billion.
Over the past 40 years, the average number of acres of forested land consumed by wildfire each year in the United States has increased by 1,000% according to National Geographic.
A report in March, 2022 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science revealed more fires occurred in the past 13 years than the previous 20 years. On the West and East coasts, fire frequency doubled. In the Great Plains, fire frequency quadrupled.
Climate change will increase the danger from wildfires. For much of the U.S. West, projections show that an average annual 1 degree C temperature increase would increase the median burned area per year as much as 600% in some types of forests. In the Southeastern United States, modeling suggests increased fire risk and a longer fire season, with at least a 30% increase from 2011 in the area burned by lightning-ignited wildfire by 2060.
What is a Wildfire?
A wildfire is an unplanned fire that burns in a natural area such as a forest, grassland, or prairie. Wildfires are often caused by human activity or a natural phenomenon such as lightning, and they can happen at any time or anywhere.
- Naturally Occurring Wildfires are most frequently caused by lightning. There are also volcanic, meteor, and coal-seam fires, depending on the circumstances.
- Human Caused Wildfires can be accidental, intentional (arson), or from an act of negligence.
The risk of wildfires increases in extremely dry conditions, such as drought, and during high winds.
Damages to Critical Infrastructure Sectors from Wildfires
Wildfires can disrupt critical infrastructure sectors such as transportation, communications, power and gas services, and water supply. They also lead to a deterioration of the air quality, and loss of property, crops, resources, animals and people.
The USDA states forest fires often reach or exceed temperatures of 2,000° Fahrenheit—equivalent to one-fifth the temperature of the surface of the sun. This intensity of heat can melt almost any building material and either damage or destroy key sites if surrounding temperatures get too hot, regardless of if the fire touches the facility.
Wildfires threaten emergency services as fire departments are called to action for firefighting, police and sheriffs are called for traffic and evacuation assistance, paramedics are required for impacted communities and shelters, hospitals can face both evacuation risk or could become overwhelmed due to the sudden heightened need. Military services can be utilized for firefighting, evacuations, and other fire event needs by the state.
Telecommunication towers can be at risk from direct damage from fire or the loss of supporting electrical facilities either shut down or destroyed by wildfire activity.
Smoke can impact crops regionally and across neighboring regions as well as a harmful composite of minerals/metals which can reduce the ability to absorb sunlight, can negatively impact soil compositions, or could directly damage the crop itself such as wine grapes.
Smoke/soot and debris can deposit along higher elevations, reducing the critical snowpack development in following months while the loss of vegetation can increase wind speeds through the area further drying soils and plants and exacerbating dried brush further and amplifying runoff from future storms for years causing washes to become unpredictable and higher downstream floodwater flow rates.
Fire can cause long term damage to vegetation and remove critical root systems, allowing for following rainfall events to move large amounts of sediment and harmful concentrations of minerals/metals into water systems resulting in reduced operations or total loss of water and wastewater facilities.
Fires burning undergrowth along valleys and washes can damage bridges by burning underneath them, resulting in prolonged damage assessments and unsafe structural integrity.
Fires can produce harmful soot/ash which can buildup in open facing water sources, reducing visibility causing delays across multiple transportation sectors, and can cause unhealthy air quality levels resulting in possible shelter-in-place orders which could impact critical infrastructure operations.
Smoke can impact powerlines by degrading transmission and threatening arching along the lines.
Smoke will degrade air filters inside buildings and homes resulting in unhealthy particulates entering worksites and increasing the risk of medical services being overwhelmed in neighboring communities due to longer-term impacts from smoke.
Predictive tools from NOAA that provide information vital for wildfire planning, response and recovery.
Specialized training courses and advanced management programs for middle- and top-level fire officers, fire service instructors, technical professionals, and representatives from allied professions.
The Forest Service and many other partners are conducting treatments that improve forest and watershed conditions and enhance fire resilience across the United States.