Climate change increases wildfire risk

Because of climate change, more frequent and intense wildfires are likely to become the new normal. More droughts and drier forests create conditions more conducive to ignite and spread severe wildfires. We're committed to helping communities protect their health from smoke and to prepare for these changes.

Environmental influences

The risk and extent of wildfires in the western United States is growing because of climate change. Climate change causes forest fuels (the trees and plants that burn and spread wildfire) to be drier and more easily ignited, leading to a doubling in the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the Western U.S. 

Research shows that changes in climate create warmer, drier conditions, increased drought, and a longer fire season — all of which work to amplify wildfire risk. For much of the U.S. West, projections show that an average annual 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature may increase the area burned in a typical year by as much as 600 percent. 

The effects of climate change that contribute to increases wildfire risk include: 

  • Earlier snowmelt
  • Rising temperatures
  • More frequent, longer heat waves
  • Drier summers
  • Lower soil moisture content
  • Spread of the mountain pine beetle and other insects that kill or weaken trees and plants
  • More fuels from dead trees and plants

Human influences

While climate change may not be the direct cause of wildfires, the rising temperatures and increased drought from the changing climate contribute to more frequent, more damaging fires. These conditions make it easier for people to ignite fires, and mean that those fires may spread more rapidly and burn more intensely, making them harder to extinguish. More than 80 percent of U.S. wildfires are started by people whether by accident, negligence, or intent (arson).

The U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management uses the Wildland Fire Management Information (WFMI) system to classify human-caused wildfires:

General Cause Specific Cause
Campfire Cooking, warming, bonfire
Smoking Cigarette, cigars, pipes, and matches/lighters used for lighting tobacco
Fire use  Debris burning, burning ditches, fields or slash piles, etc.
Incendiary Arson, illegal or unauthorized burning
Equipment Vehicles, aircraft, exhaust, flat tires, dragging chains, brakes, etc.
Railroads Exhaust, brakes, railroad work, etc.
Juveniles Fire play - matches, fireworks, lighters, etc.
Miscellaneous Includes burning buildings, fireworks, power lines, shooting (ammo, exploding targets), spontaneous combustion (hay baled while still wet, compost piles, oily rags), blasting, and coal seams
Other Known or Unknown When a specific cause is unknown or the cause is not in the specific cause list, then other known or unknown is selected.  When "other" is selected, the cause should then be noted in the remarks (i.e. exploding target).

How you can help prevent wildfires

More and more people are making their homes in woodland settings — in or near forests, rural areas, or remote mountain sites. There, homeowners enjoy the beauty of the environment but face the very real danger of wildfire. Follow these guidelines to help prevent wildfires that threaten your health and property, and damage the agriculture industry, natural resources, and wildlife habitat:

  • NEVER throw cigarettes out your car window
  • Don't park hot vehicles, recreational vehicles, trailers, fuel powered lawn equipment on the grass
  • Make sure trailer chains don't drag on the ground, causing sparks
  • Clear the perimeter of your house from pine, fir needles, and yard waste; and keep your gutters clean
  • Adhere to burn bans & report illegal burning
  • Extinguish camp fires completely
  • Monitor air quality in your area
  • Have an evacuation plan in place - no matter if you are home or traveling
  • Visit Ready, Set, GO!  for more emergency preparedness tips

To help slow the effects of climate change that contribute to the increase wildfire risk, we are working to reduce greenhouse gases. You can also help, and make a difference, by reducing your carbon footprint.

We monitor wildfire smoke to protect your health

Because the risk of wildfires is increasing with the changing climate, we, along with our partners, monitor air quality to protect your health. We have a number of monitors around the state and use a few different tools to communicate with you. During a wildfire event, we often add temporary air monitors. 

Find information about air quality and wildfires in your area using the tools below: