Editors’ Note: Gabe Kohler is the Southwest Program Coordinator for The Forest Stewards Guild based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Forest Stewards Guild has “been working with forest dependent communities to play a greater role in public lands management and increase their fire adaptation.” They help create the next generation of forest stewards, and restore forest resilience with the re-introduction of good fire. Here Gabe shares some research findings and eye opening data on human-caused wildfire ignitions and reiterates the need for a refocusing and reinvestment in prevention education programs.  

The devastation of the 2018 Camp Fire was ignited by a preventable failure in power infrastructure. This failure, the resulting lawsuit that held PG&E responsible for $11 billion in damages, and the subsequent rolling blackouts across California’s electrical grid underscore the huge – and often disregarded – role that human-caused ignitions play in our relationship with wildfire.

Human ignitions are part of the puzzle and a place of relative control in reducing the risk of wildfire amidst a changing climate, increasing fuel loadings in many forested areas of the Western US and increasing development in the Wildland Urban Interface. In fact, it is likely that we are not investing enough as a nation in wildfire prevention given how effective it can be in reducing wildfires.

A sign reading "Wanted Your Campfire Deadout" on grassland next to a road

The most recent investigation into the effectiveness of wildfire prevention signs appears to have been more than 40 years ago.

Human-caused Ignitions

People start wildfires with their vehicles, cigarette butts, campfires, fireworks, debris burning, power lines, arson and other activities. These human-ignited wildfires are different from controlled burns (also called prescribed fire), which are intentionally ignited under specific conditions and managed to benefit ecological conditions, reduce potential wildfire fuels and restore forests.

Human-ignited wildfires account for over 80% of the total wildfire ignitions across the U.S. and are responsible for an average of about 55% of the total acres burned in a given year (Balch et al. 2017, NIFC 2017). The primary source of human ignitions varies by region. For example, in the marine coastal forests of Washington, agriculture is the important predictor of wildfire ignitions, while in the Great Basin and interior deserts, distance to railroads is more important (Fusco et al. 2016). In the east, the majority of human caused wildfires result from escaped fires from debris burning (Balch et al. 2017). In other areas, like California, faulty power lines may be a critical factor in human-caused ignitions. Abandoned campfires are the most common single source of human ignitions in the Southwest. USFS data from the Southwest show the impact of abandoned campfires in particular, which account for 44% of the human caused wildfires since 2001.

A forest service ranger dumps water from a gallon jug on a smoldering campfire

In the Southwest, abandoned campfires account for 44% of human ignited wildfires since 2001.

Seeing that there are so many ways humans start wildfires, prevention efforts must take numerous forms including educational signs, legislation, outreach events, public service announcements, ranger programs and more. The work it takes to reduce human wildfire ignitions spans geographical and jurisdictional boundaries and requires creativity, engagement and investment.

Public Awareness of Wildfire Risk

Prevention education used in combination with fuel reduction is effective in minimizing the costs and losses from unintentional wildfires (Butry et al. 2010). In a study of Bureau of Indian Affairs tribal units, prevention activities led to significant reductions in wildfires caused by escaped campfires, children playing with fire, fire-use (e.g. escaped debris burns), and equipment, and these program benefits were 4.5 times greater than the cost of conducting the program (Abt et al. 2015).

Burty and colleagues (2010) highlight that wildfire prevention education programs are more flexible, in both time and space, than fuel reduction treatment. Prevention programs can respond to unexpected wildfire outbreaks, but longevity of their effect on wildfire ignitions is limited (Butry et al. 2010). Meaning that longer term investment and repeated efforts are the key in successfully implementing prevention programs. In general, the prevention programs that are most likely to be effective are those that give people information and tools that enhance their perception of their own power, as individuals, to prevent wildfires (Bates et al. 2009). Think Smokey Bear’s famous saying…“Only YOU can prevent wildfires.”

Fire Prevention through Partnerships

Given the numerous causes of human ignitions across ownerships and jurisdictions, public land management agencies struggle to keep up. Of course, Smokey Bear is one way to reach occasional forest visitors, but the number of abandoned campfires after 75 years of Smokey Bear suggests that additional approaches are needed. Capacity gaps in prevention education and coordination and communication of restrictions may be improved through partnerships with outside organizations. The One Less Spark campaign is a good example of an awareness program created through partnerships between land management agencies, but examples of partnerships between public and private entities are limited.

So how can public agencies work together with private organizations for a more cohesive approach to fire prevention?

Some recent Forest Stewards Guild publications on increasing wildfire awareness and reducing human-caused ignitions may be helpful in highlighting existing capacity gaps and opportunities for partnership. These reports attempt to amplify the need for greater investment in fire prevention awareness at the national level while identifying opportunities for partnership to support fire prevention at the local level.

Fire Prevention Awareness in 2018

The Guild’s 2018 report, titled “Increasing Wildfire Awareness and Reducing Human Caused Ignitions in Northern New Mexico” was designed to help support wildfire prevention by identifying how people start wildfires, common locations of human-caused wildfires, existing public awareness campaigns and current investments in public awareness of wildfire.

Cover of a report entitled "Increasing Wildfire Awareness and Reducing Human-Caused Ignitions in Northern New Mexico"

The 2018 Report Cover.

Key Findings of the 2018 report included:

  • In New Mexico, human-caused wildfire accounted for half of the acres burned by wildfire since 2001.
  • Abandoned campfires account for 44% of the human-caused wildfires since 2001 and 37% of the acres burned by these fires.
  • Electrical power lines are a significant cause of wildfires.
  • More knowledge about the spatial patterns of human ignitions presents the opportunity for targeted outreach and education, which is a cost-effective way to reduce wildfire impacts.
  • In New Mexico, 80% of wildfires started by campfires are within a quarter mile of a road.
  • Hotspot modeling to identify areas of high arson potential can help law enforcement reduce wildfire threats.
  • Currently, federal agency budgets for prevention programs do not reflect their importance.
  • The National Prevention Program only has an annual budget of $95,000 and one full-time staff person for the whole country to help coordinate awareness efforts.
  • Research has shown that wildfire damages can be as much as 35 times greater than the cost of prevention education.
  • Public awareness campaigns, such as Smokey Bear and more recent One Less Spark, seek to change behaviors, but there is little information about their effectiveness.
  • The most recent investigation into the effectiveness of wildfire prevention signs was more than 40 years ago.

The 2018 report inspired a wildfire prevention poster designed to reduce human-caused ignitions by providing techniques for adequately putting out a campfire (See below). The prevention poster was adopted by the Santa Fe National Forest. Prevention officers reported that it was effective at reducing the number of abandoned campfires over peak holiday weekends like Memorial Day and the fourth of July.

A poster entitled Campfire Safety To Prevent Wildfire

The Forest Stewards Guild Campfire Safety poster.

Fire Prevention Awareness in 2020

In 2020, the Guild completed a follow-up report that explores federal investment in fire prevention awareness at the ranger district and forest levels. This report, titled “Investing in Wildfire Prevention,” aimed to better understand the US Forest Service’s (USFS) contribution to public awareness of wildfire risk by documenting investment in prevention programs across eight ranger districts on the Santa Fe and Coconino National Forests. Since there is no budget or line item to document this investment, data was collected through phone interviews with Fire Prevention Technicians and Fire Management Officers.

Report cover entitled "Investing in Wildfire Prevention"

2020 Report Cover.

Key Findings of the 2020 report included:

  • In 2018, 89% of wildfires in the U.S. were human caused.
  • As a nation, we are not investing enough in prevention given how effective it can be in reducing wildfires.
  • Increased clarity about the USFS investments in prevention would help identify what is working and where increased resources are necessary.
  • Statistics on fire prevention programs can be difficult for outside organizations to obtain at the national forest level, making it hard to evaluate the success of prevention efforts and to identify areas where capacity may be improved through partnerships with outside organizations.
  • Ranger districts generally lack a process for evaluating the success of public awareness efforts.
  • There is no budget line-item tracking investment in fire prevention work at the Washington Office, regional, or National Forest level.
  • Most of the ranger districts we interviewed lacked capacity to accomplish both suppression and prevention tasks at least at some points during fire season.
  • There are only 400 wildfire prevention technicians listed in the entire US Forest Service budget (about 4% of total number of employees devoted to fire related activities).
  • Greater information sharing and transparency about the challenges that fire prevention programs face with human-caused ignitions is needed.

The 2020 report attempts to identify the current conditions of the USFS’s contribution to public awareness of wildfire risk by exploring fire prevention efforts at the national level and within local ranger districts. It’s clear that creating and sharing actionable prevention plans based on priority areas is a sensible starting point for advancing wildfire prevention.

This coming year, The Forest Stewards Guild will be partnering with Dr. Catrin Edgeley from Northern Arizona University and an interagency group of fire prevention officers to research prevention through a combination of geospatial and social data. This research is made possible through funding from the Joint Fire Science Program. We hope to use this research as an opportunity to connect fire prevention personnel into FAC Net. The Forest Stewards Guild is committed to continuing to amplify the need for increased investment in prevention programs at the national level. More locally we will continue to work to find creative solutions and foster partnerships and collaboration because prevention messages need to be seen and heard from the neighborhood greenspace to the National Forest and everywhere in between.

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