The number of large wildfires in the U.S. has increased significantly over the last 30 years, according to an academic study published in April 2014.
Authors of the study titled “Large wildfire trends in the western United States, 1984–2011,” say climate change, invasive species and past fire management practices are responsible.
The number of wildfires larger than 1,000 acres has increased by seven fires a year since 1984 (the year for which satellite imaging records are first available).
The total acreage burned has increased by a rate of nearly 90,000 acres per year, according to the study, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The trend is expected to worsen as average temperatures rise and winter snowpack in Western U.S. states decreases. Warmer temperatures also mean higher winter survival rates and increased populations of mountain pine beetles. These invasive insects are killing large sections of forest and creating tinderbox conditions across the country.
Wildfire management practices are also partly to blame for the trend. In the past, the strategy was to suppress fires whenever possible. While seemingly prudent, this meant that year after year, more vegetation and fuel collected. As a result, today’s fires burn hotter and faster than ever.
Fire management strategy is changing to allow fires—which are part of the natural ecological cycle—to burn under close supervision. But as suburban populations encroach on wilderness areas, it becomes more difficult and costly to protect property and human lives.
The National Fire Protection Association estimates that nearly 45 million homes abut or intermingle with wilderness areas and more than 72,000 U.S. communities are now at risk from wildfires.
Ready.gov offers numerous tips for protecting your home and family before, during and after a wildfire:
Before a Wildfire
- Prepare an emergency kit and a family communications plan.
- Design and landscape your home with wildfire safety in mind.
- Use fire-resistant building materials on homes or treat combustible materials with fire-retardant chemicals evaluated by a recognized laboratory, such as UL.
- Regularly clean roofs and gutters.
- Keep a ladder handy, as well as firefighting tools like a rake, axe, bucket and shovel.
- Clear away from the house items that will burn.
- Identify and maintain an adequate outside water source, such as a small pond, cistern, well or swimming pool.
During a Wildfire
- Arrange for temporary housing outside the threatened area in case you need to evacuate.
- Close vents, windows and doors. Remove flammable drapes and curtains. Close shutters, blinds or heavy non-combustible window coverings to reduce radiant heat.
- Shut off any natural gas, propane or fuel oil supplies at the source.
- Wear protective clothing when outside – sturdy shoes, cotton or woolen clothes, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves and a handkerchief to protect your face.
- Connect garden hoses to outdoor water faucet and fill any pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, tubs or other large containers with water.
- Place a ladder against the house in clear view.
- Place valuable papers and anything "you can't live without" inside the car in the garage, ready for quick departure. Do the same with pets.
- Place valuables that will not be damaged by water in a pool or pond.
- Move flammable furniture into the center of your home away from windows and sliding-glass doors.
After a Wildfire
- If you have been told to evacuate or you feel it is unsafe to remain in your home, got to a shelter. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345).
- If there are burn victims, call 9-1-1 or seek help immediately; cool and cover burns to reduce chance of further injury or infection.
- If you remained at home, check the roof immediately after the fire danger has passed. Put out any roof fires, sparks or embers. Check the attic for hidden burning sparks.
- For several hours after the fire, continue to re-check for smoke and sparks throughout the house.
- If you evacuated, do not return to your home until fire officials say it is safe.