NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Have Wildfires Increased Due to Global Warming?

September 16, 2014

A recent news report in the Billings Gazette indicates that global warming is contributing to forest fires. According to a global warming activist Steve Running, "Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986."

Is that really the case? Not according to James Taylor of the Heartland Institute. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, which has wildfire statistics going back more than half a century, wildfires have decreased, not increased, as global temperatures have risen.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center:

  • In 1986, there were 85,000 wildfires.
  • Last year, there were 47,000 wildfires.
  • There were fewer wildfires in 2013 than in any year since 1984.
  • So far, there have been 38,000 wildfires in 2014.

So how can Running claim that wildfires have quadrupled since 1986? Taylor notes that Running used the term "major" wildfires -- significant, because the U.S. government has changed its policy towards wildfires in recent years. Today, wildfire policy allows wildfires to burn freely, until the fires begin to pose a threat to humans. This means that small wildfires are allowed to become much larger blazes, resulting in a 50 percent increase in acreage burned in 2013 compared to 1986, despite half as many wildfires actually taking place last year.

Source: James M. Taylor, "Sorry, Steve Running, Wildfires Are Decreasing with Global Warming," Heartland Institute, September 15, 2014. 


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