Fighting future fires

fire in a forest
Wildfires and the cost of suppressing them is  growing. However, prescribed fires can reduce forest fuels while maintaining fire-dependent ecosystems. USDA photo by Virginia McDaniel.

Climate change threatens communities around the world with the promise of more floods, drought, extreme heat, hurricanes – and wildfire. As these events increase in frequency, they will add new pressures to the federal budget.

The USDA Forest Service has already taken proactive steps to mitigate some of these impacts. The agency recently established a Wildfire Crisis Strategy to increase hazardous fuels and forest health treatments up to four times in the West. The agency estimates that a total of 50 million acres nationwide – in addition to what it currently treats each year – need similar treatments. Of those 50 million acres, 20 million are on national forests and grasslands.

Agency scientists quantified how climate change might impact the frequency and intensity of wildfires on federal lands – as well as the amount of money needed to suppress them.

The result? According to senior research forester Jeffrey Prestemon, who led the Forest Service team charged with conducting the analysis, “The wildfire area burned is expected to more than triple in the next 80 years.”

Prestemon also confirmed that the anticipated increase in wildfires will require more money to suppress and manage.

“Fire suppression spending will likely nearly double by the end of the century,” says Prestemon. “Combined Forest Service and Department of Interior spending is projected to rise by 90% – or $1.8 billion – by 2100.”

Prestemon added that the projected study results are based upon assumptions that could potentially change the anticipated outcomes: “For example, our modeling accounts for how climate has changed fire and fuels management of the past. However, it doesn’t take into consideration future changes in fuels management strategies by agencies.”

The study results could be considered an assessment of what could happen if federal wildfire management does not change appreciably. Aggressive, proactive changes in how fuels are treated, such as those outlined in the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, could make a difference.

“This study revealed the importance of uncovering how changes in our wildfire management strategies could lead to overall better wildfire outcomes in America,” notes Prestemon. “The science could help us move our forests towards conditions where levels of wildfire and suppression spending are more ecologically and economically sustainable.”

The report builds upon similar work done in 2016. As in 2016, the team developed wildfire models at regional scales based on historic climate and wildfire data. This year the team also built a set of ten climate projections to the year 2100 that included variables such as historic and projected future temperature, humidity, and precipitation.

The team included SRS research ecologist Jennifer Costanza, along with multiple experts from the Rocky Mountain Research Station and Fire and Aviation Management. The researchers also updated the data on wildfire suppression expenditures through 2020, while considering areas previously burned.

This article was originally published as a Forest Service Feature Story.

For more information, email Jeffrey Prestemon at jeff.prestemon@usda.gov.

Find the latest publications by SRS scientists.

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Receive weekly updates