Why Wildfires Are Burning Bigger and Hotter

Tall flames from the Ponderosa Fire can be seen on a ridgeline near Manton, California.

A century of fire suppression means there are more trees to burn, and they burn more dramatically

This has been a devastating wildfire season. Nationwide, more acres have burned this summer than at this time in any other year on record. In May and June, New Mexico weathered the largest fire in its history. Hundreds of homes and tens of thousands of acres have burned in Colorado. As the summer wears on, fire season has moved west — as it tends to do — and now the Ponderosa Fire is raging near Redding.

Has it always been like this? A new NPR series by Christopher Joyce explores what a century of fire suppression has meant for forests in the Southwest.

By keeping forests from burning, the Forest Service has actually made them more susceptible to very large fires. Instead of more frequent brush fires, which help keep fuel to a minimum, now, when a forest begins burning, fires consume the ample fuel and are able to climb to the tops of trees, sweeping through thousands of acres. (Graphics in the second story in the series illustrate the difference.)

In addition to the video above and five radio pieces (the first two aired today), there’s a fire map that shows current large fires and fire conditions, and a series of photos showing the evolution of a forest where fire is suppressed.

Fire suppression is only a piece — though it’s a big one — of the wildfire puzzle. Beetles, disease, drought and logging are all in the mix, too. And then there’s climate change, which scientists project will bring more fires to the West — not just in the long-term, but within the next few decades.

Why Wildfires Are Burning Bigger and Hotter 23 August,2012Molly Samuel


Molly Samuel

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.

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