Rethinking how we live with wildfires

Fire has been part of life on Earth for a very long time. Bits of charcoal and other wildfire debris have been found in 430-million-year-old rocks, suggesting that plants became fuel for fire shortly after they made their way from oceans to land.

Humans have always had to contend with wildfires, starting long before our ancestors figured out how to make a fire themselves or barbecue a mammoth. As human populations grew, so did the flames’ toll. In 1871, the town of Peshtigo, Wis., was leveled by a fast-moving fire that killed about 1,500 people and burned through a swath of forest 15 kilometers wide and 65 kilometers long. The Great Fire of 1910 killed 87 people and burned more than 12,000 square kilometers in Idaho, Montana and Washington. The Cloquet–Moose Lake Fire in 1918 killed 453 people and destroyed 38 towns and villages in Minnesota. The fire that destroyed the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina in August 2023, killing 100 people and displacing thousands, is just the latest chapter in this long-running tragedy.

Small wonder, then, that people clamor for more protection against fire. The first wildland fire control program in the United States, founded in the Adirondack Mountain Reserve in upstate New York in 1885, called for extinguishing all fires, no matter how small. Since then, wildfire management has cycled through multiple strategies, including total suppression; “prescribed” fires and mechanical thinning to reduce the amount of flammable vegetation; and letting fires burn at will on federal lands.

In this issue, staff writer Nikk Ogasa reports from Arizona and California on a science-driven effort to manage wildfires, known as potential operational delineations, or PODs. The concept is simpler than it sounds. It uses data including topography and historical fires to map locations where stopping a blaze would work best. The process also helps identify where homes and other assets would be at risk, and where a burn would be relatively benign.

Local expertise and buy-in is essential, especially with Indigenous communities who have historically been excluded from land management decisions — and who have long practiced controlled burns to improve soils and wildlife habitat, and reduce fire risk.

Working toward consensus on how best to reduce wildfire risk isn’t simple or easy, especially when more and more people are being affected by smoke and fire. Because of climate change, wildfire seasons are getting longer. Higher temperatures plus more drought parch soil and vegetation. That makes it easier for fires to spread and harder to extinguish them. Between 1980 and 2023, 22 wildfire events in the United States caused more than $1 billion in damage per fire, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And the risk continues to build.

We all want to feel safe in our homes, to breathe clean air and enjoy blue skies. As threats from wildfires grow and the number of people who live in harm’s way grows, we have to figure out how best to guide the flames.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.