'Megafire' Reveals a Frightening Forecast of Large-Scale Wildfires

Sep 14, 2017

At last report, more than 21,000 firefighters are deployed around the country, mainly in the west. More than a million and a half acres have been charred by the 62 large fires that are currently burning.

The fire danger is comparatively low in Wisconsin, but the state is not immune from large-scale fires, either. And this time of year, wildland firefighters from the state are dispatched to places like Oregon, Montana and California.

While fires have always burned landscapes, the regularity with which enormous fires are overspreading the west is something relatively new. And the phenomenon has roots in both the natural and human-affected worlds, as writer Michael Kodas has chronicled in his new book, Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame

"We've really changed the structures of our forests and we've changed the chemical makeup of our atmosphere, so we're raising temperatures in a lot of landscapes and we also have moved into these landscapes. So we have a huge amount of development in vegetative landscapes and all of those things affect the fire cycle," Kodas explains. 

"When we put out fires for a century we interrupted the fire cycle so that some of these forests missed 5 or 6 of the natural fire cycles they would have experienced."

He says that for decades, the United States had a policy known as the "out by 10 am policy," which stipulated that any wildfire should be extinguished before 10 am the next day. 

"In a lot of forests, that allowed a huge buildup of fuel," says Kodas. "Some of our Ponderosa Pine forests... burned in what they call low-intensity ground fires every 10 or 20 years. And when we put out fires for a century we interrupted the fire cycle so that some of these forests missed 5 or 6 of the natural fire cycles they would have experienced."

He continues, "So all of the fuel that would've been burned away by those fires instead built up, and some of these forests now have 10 or even 20 times more fuel - more trees and brush in them - than they would have naturally."