Forest fires are raging again as, it seems, they always are this time of year in California. The Carr fire, near Redding, CA has taken the lives of six people and consumed over 95,000 acres and 800 structures. 40,000 people in the path of this blaze have evacuated their homes. Firefighters are reporting flames as high as 200 feet and fire tornadoes. It is only 17% contained.
Despite being America's most prone state to forest fires (with nearly three times the number of households at risk to wildfires as the next state, Texas), California is not alone when it comes to these disasters. Montana and Nevada actually top the list of total acreage burned in the US by wildfires in 2017.
It appears US wildfires are on the rise. Last year more than 10 million acres burned nationwide, surpassing 2006, the previous record year. Looking at a graph it is pretty easy to see the trend. There could be several reasons why there are more forest fires occurring in the US. Rising temperatures due to climate change would be an obvious one. Increases in population could be another (90% of forest fires are caused by people, both unintentionally and intensionally). Another reason, which might surprise some of us oriented to conservation, is there are just too many trees.
Studies show that many of our forests are over populated. Historically, before the westward expansion, forests were known to have up to 50 trees per acre. These trees were able to consume an amount of water and sunlight that kept them healthy and disease resistant, even during times of drought. Naturally occurring forest fires kept their population at bay. Today's forests often contain as many as 1,000 trees per acre, a density that many believe to be unhealthy and not sustainable. At these high densities trees compete for a limited supply of water and, during times of drought, aren't able to get enough to survive. With inadequate water, trees become more susceptible to insect infestation and disease. Then they die. Unfortunately, unhealthy and dead trees don't just fall over and disappear. They might stay standing for many years, like matchsticks waiting for the next spark.
Is there a solution? Some conservationists, ironically, are logging the very forests they fought to preserve. I'll leave the answers to the experts. In the mean time, next time you're running through a dense forest and you feel like hugging a tree, make sure you pick a healthy one!