Thoughtful Forest Management & Better Building Practices Can Help Mitigate the Impact of Wildfires

Oct 14, 2020 at 8:00am

Ann Bartuska, David N. Wear, and Matthew Wibbenmeyer

More than five million acres have burned across the West Coast in this year’s unusually severe wildfire season. Billowing smoke has traveled across the country, degrading air quality as far east as Washington, DC, and amplifying health risks for a nation still grappling with COVID-19.

Many factors contribute to the unique intensity and reach of this year’s blazes. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has emphasized the role of climate change in exacerbating wildfire risks, while President Donald Trump has largely blamed poor forest management. Bureaucratic hurdles—such as the court-mandated requirement that federal units consult each other before implementing forest management strategies—can complicate relief efforts, too, according to the sponsors of one bipartisan Senate bill.

To provide further context on how policymakers and forest managers can effectively mitigate the mounting threat of wildfires, RFF’s Ann Bartuska, David Wear, and Matthew Wibbenmeyer share their insights. All three researchers sat down together to discuss the relative effectiveness of different wildfire response strategies, and an edited version of their conversation is below.

Resources: You all are well aware of the cyclical nature of wildfires. But against this backdrop of another expected wildfire season in the western part of the United States, why have this year’s fires generated more attention? Why have recent discussions about forest management been especially salient?

Matthew Wibbenmeyer: This year’s fire season has been especially extreme. Five of the 10 largest fires in California’s history have occurred this year. California is making a habit of breaking records with its wildfires, but that’s a pretty notable series of fires. Oregon experienced a really dramatic series of wildfire events, too. The smoke that went along with these fires was extremely thick and widespread and engulfed major population centers on the West Coast for weeks.

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