Wildland fires are nothing new, but their current impact is dramatic. So far, in 2020, about 8.5 million acres have burned across the U.S. The financial toll is mind-boggling. In 2018, estimates of wildfire damage were about $18 billion. So far this year, nearly 33,000 people have been involved in fighting wildfires and 12 are dead—not including civilians. Most of these fires were preventable; approximately 87 percent of wildfires are caused by people. Responsible recreation during wildfire season can make a difference.
The vast majority of small fires are put out. But strong winds and critically dry fuels can turn a spark or neglected campfire into a “megafire,” which can have an extraordinary impact on local populations and the environment. Not only are forests and grasslands scorched, people lose homes, businesses and, tragically, their lives. Forest closures and hazardous air conditions devastate local economies. Fuels and forests have built up in the absence of natural wildfires over the past century, leading to a contagious tinderbox in many forestlands. Warmer, drier summers and increased human-caused ignitions have dramatically increased the length of the average fire season.
Susan Prichard, fire ecologist at University of Washington, says that the balance of human- versus lightning-started fires varies from place to place, year to year. But it’s important to understand that since most camping takes place at the height of fire season, fire irresponsibility coincides with wind and dry forests. “Even though it seems like the West is burning up (historically, there have always been wildfires), there are still many places under a fire deficit,” explains Prichard. “There will always be fire danger, and, while we’re very good at extinguishing them in this country (97 to 98 percent of fire starts are put out, it’s only 2-3 percent that get away), any fire, even a small one, has the potential to explode.”
Oddly enough, there’s evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling this season’s devastating blazes. Stacy Corless, Supervisor for Mono County, CA, reports that this summer, “our forests (like most others throughout the West, maybe the nation) saw big increases in visitation.” With many visitors new to camping and the outdoors, there was a likely gap in terms of understanding and following rules. “We saw some bad behavior—illegal campfires and camping, trash left behind, and lots of crowds,” Corless notes, “There seemed to be little awareness of wildfire danger, or the impact on the land.”
“Due to COVID, we’re seeing a lot of people on public lands this year that don’t typically camp or hike,” adds Tina Boehle, information officer for NIFC (National Interagency Fire Center). “It’s a great opportunity for education and we hope people fall in love with their public lands, use them responsibly and protect them for future generations. Before heading out, take the