September 01, 2019

Climate change, population demographics, and wildfire planning in the West

Philip Higuera, Hillary M. Hoffmann, Stephen R. Miller, and Shelley Ross Saxer

This article contains summaries of presentations from a May 2019 conference exploring the nexus of climate, population, and wildfire planning in the western United States at the University of Montana’s Alexander J. Blewett III School of Law.

Wildfire activity has increased substantially in the United States over the past several decades, with record-breaking fire seasons becoming increasingly common. The 2017 fire season was one of the most extensive and expensive, and, in 2018, California alone experienced its largest (Ranch Fire—186,000 hectares) and deadliest (Camp Fire—85 lives lost) wildfires in state history. While past land-management practices, including decades of fire suppression, have altered the amount of dead vegetation in many ecosystems, fire scientists have also established clear links between increased fire activity and increasingly warm, dry summer conditions, which stem in part from anthropogenic climate change. These increasingly warm, dry conditions make dead vegetation particularly susceptible to ignition and rapid fire spread, and ongoing climate change is expected to exacerbate these conditions in upcoming decades. Despite this understanding, predicting the timing and behavior of individual wildfires, planning to avoid loss of property and human life, and mitigating resultant damages from wildfires (both social and ecological) remain complex endeavors. An additional complicating factor is the changing population demographics of the modern West, with increasing development in the wildland-urban interface placing more homes and structures in fire-susceptible environments, which lead to more human-caused fires during and outside of the historical fire season. Montana alone has seen a doubling of the number of homes in wildfire-prone areas in the last 26 years.

As we shall discuss, these data and trends impact two areas of the law in particular: land-use planning and litigation surrounding management of fires.

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