Humans are responsible for 80 percent of U.S. wildfires

March 3, 2017, 8:32 a.m.
2015 Okanogan Complex Fire in Washington state
Photo: Tom Reichner/Shutterstock

It seems like we humans could use a refresher on fire safety while outdoors.

According to a new study pulished in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 80 percent of all wildfires in the U.S. between 1992 and 2012 were started by human beings. Additionally, humans are responsible for 44 percent of the acreage burned in the same period.

And our fondness for the flame doesn't stop there. Human activity has similarly expanded the temporal and spatial range of wildfires. Translation: We're increasing the length of wildfire season — tripling it, in fact — and we're causing more fires in more areas than lightning does. That makes humans the "substantial driver of overall fire risk," according to the researchers.

Drilling down a bit deeper, the researchers found that human-caused fires were most prominent in the Southeastern U.S. and in the southern and central areas of California. The majority of these fires were caused by "escaped fires from debris burning," aka burning trash that got out of hand. While these fires tended to be small, the researchers identified them as an "important source of risk" to the surrounding areas.

Human activity and wildfires even extends to climate change. While there has been an increase of wildfires in the summer months, the cause is likely lightning mixing with changes in climates and fuels rather than human "ignitions." So as we go through more droughts and forests get drier, that lightning strike has a better chance of causing a wildfire. Of course, climate change influences human activities, too, which is why some areas are seeing increasing in wildfires even during some warmer winter and early spring months.

So the next time you're burning some garbage or trying to start a camp fire, be aware of the fire and how it might spread. There's no need to keep making wildfires worse.