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University of Idaho Researcher: 84 Percent of Nation's Wildfires Caused by Humans


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  • U.S. Forest Service/Boise National Forest
New data from the National Academy of Sciences indicates as many as 84 percent of the nation’s wildfires from 1992-2012 have been human-caused. Looking specifically at Northwestern states, the study concluded humans were responsible for about half the region’s wildfires.

“Over much of the United States, these human-caused fires are happening a lot more in the spring and fall when lightning activity is minimal,” said University of Idaho Assistant Professor of Geography John Abatzoglou, head of the research team. “These human-caused fires are [changing the] landscape and occurring at a time of year when we shouldn’t have much fire disturbance.”

Assisting Abatzoglou was Bethany Bradley, of the University of Massachusetts, and Jennifer Blach, of the University of Colorado at Boulder. For their findings, the trio turned to the U.S. Forest Service database.

“This was part of a larger project to understand the contributors of fire across the Western United States, specifically,” Abatzoglou told Boise Weekly. “Our specific goals were to look at how climate, and also invasive species, influence the distribution of fire across the landscape.”

Crews worked for months to extinguish the Pioneer Fire.  - US FOREST SERVICE/BOISE NATIONAL FOREST
  • US Forest Service/Boise National Forest
  • Crews worked for months to extinguish the Pioneer Fire.
He said that although Idaho had the largest proportional burn area of any other state in the continental U.S., only 31 percent of the fires in the Gem State are human-caused.

“Lightning ends up playing a much bigger role in terms of not only the number of fires [in Idaho], but, moreover, the amount of burn area associated with those numbers,” Abatzoglou said. “The story is pretty different when we talk about the human contributions to fires in places like California, where lightning is fairly rare.”

The researchers included arson, discarded cigarettes, railroads, fireworks and children playing with fire, as well as campfires and burning debris, among the ways humans start wildfires.

“Lightning-caused fires ... can certainly burn a lot of area and put up a lot of smoke; but, in many ways, they are part of the system so we don’t want to get rid of them completely,” said Abatzoglou. “But I think we can do something at least about the undesired fires ignited by humans.”


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