The burning battle
Recent study shows humans start 84 percent of wildfires in the U.S.

May 2, 2017

Dirk Seymore didn’t always want to be a firefighter.

But, with his desire for an outdoor summer job and a relationship with individuals who worked in fire, it seemed like a good fit.

Now, the University of Idaho senior spends his summers working with wild land fire for the Idaho Department of Lands, and said he plans to continue working with fire for years to come.

The physicality of the job makes working with fire exhausting, Seymore said. The intensity of a fire’s heat is like a sunburn. But this doesn’t discourage him.

“At the end of the day you can look back up and say, ‘Wow, I did something that mattered today,’” Seymore said. “I helped stop something that could have been catastrophic if we hadn’t been there.”

Ironically enough, humans, like Seymore, who spend their summers suppressing fires, are fighting fires that could have been ignited by other humans.

According to John Abatzoglou, an associate professor of geography in the UI College of Science, Humans are responsible for 84 percent of wildfires nationwide and 31 percent in Idaho.

Abatzoglou worked with project leaders Bethany Bradley of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Jennifer Balch of the University of Colorado-Boulder to analyze the impact humans have on wildfires.

“The general question we were trying to answer was to understand the pyro-geography of fire across the United States in terms of the timing of fires and whether the fires were human caused or lightning caused,” Abatzoglou said.

Researchers conducted the study to address how much humans add to the burden, Abatzoglou said. They wanted to find where and when humans add fire to landscape that wouldn’t otherwise occur by natural means.

Analyzing more than 1.5 million fire records of wildfires from 1992-2012, which required some repression effort, researchers found that nationwide, humans started 84 percent of them.

The study showed that by causing most of the wildfires in the U.S., humans are expanding the fire niche, or the area where fires occur naturally, as their bringing fire to locations where it wouldn’t otherwise occur naturally.

Abatzoglou said researchers saw more area burned in the past 30 years in Idaho than any other state in the lower 48. Of the fires that required some sort of agency response, only 31 percent were caused by humans, lower than the national percentage of human-caused fires.

Part of the lower percentage in the northwestern states is due to the lower population density. 

Abatzoglou said human-caused fires are typically seen more in eastern states, where upward of 90-95 percent of fires are caused by humans.

“In the west, it just so turns out that you have the apex most amount of lightning on the landscape at the time of the year when the fuels are as dry as they’re going to be,” Abatzoglou said. “So it’s sort of the perfect harmony of the two.”

Lightning combined with low population density causes lightning storms to play a much bigger role in how fires start in the western states, Abatzoglou said.

Fires caused by humans in Idaho tend to be on the smaller side, whereas lightning-caused fires have impact on a larger scale, Abatzoglou said.

“Generally, people think about fire as being bad, we go to war with it all of the time,” Abatzoglou said. “Probably fire is not necessarily always bad, but human-caused fires may be fires that are not supposed to be there. I think the goal is to identify fires that we can potentially try to limit fire on the landscape, we don’t want to limit all fire, but human-caused fires — not the greatest.”

Fire has the potential to benefit a landscape, Abatzoglou said. Fires are natural, especially in the interior west, where our forests are meant to burn.

“When they burn, that provides resources to habitat,” Abatzoglou said. “There are some animals that make use of recently cleared forested areas by fire.”

Fire is the natural way in which vegetation and forests dissipate and allow new crop to come in, he said.

The results of human-caused fires in the nation and Northwest were no surprise to Abatzoglou. The impact human-caused fires have on the landscape, however, suggest the need to reduce these fires in years to come.

Results like ones found in the study continue to affect Seymore and his summertime job, Seymore said each fire is challenging and unpredictable.

“It’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get until you get there,” Seymore said.

Despite the difficulty that comes with fighting these fires, Seymore said a lot of the joy of the work comes from the people he meets along the way.

Humans, whether they are fighting human or lightning-caused fires, stick together and form close friendships.

“The single biggest part in fighting wildfires is that it’s a brotherhood and a sisterhood. The crew you work with, they are your family,” Seymore said. “You spend every waking moment with them 14 days in a row, working 16 hours a day or sometimes more.”

Looking at it as more than just a job but a lifetime experience, Seymore said by the end of the season after working on a few fires, the crew becomes family.

“Honestly, I love my job. It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Seymore said. “It’s a sense of belonging that you don’t find in a lot of places and a sense of companionship.”

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