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The Story Behind The South's Wildfires

wildfire photo
Stuart Palley for Reveal
Sand fire flames and smoke shoot up into the Southern California sky.

Wildfires continue to sweep through the Southeastern United States. More than 28,000 fires have burned approximately 1.5 million acres of land in the region so far this year, according to The National Interagency Fire Center. Historically wildfires are a  concern predominantly in Western states, but a new series of reports from “Reveal,”a project of The Center for Investigative Reporting, shows that wildfires are becoming bigger and more costly throughout the country.

The spread of wildfires is due to a confluence of three factors, according to Eric Sagara, a senior data reporter for Reveal. These include climate change, land management policies, and urban sprawl.

“Temperatures are getting warmer, and severe weather events are more common,” Sagara said. “Dry periods are drier; wet periods are wetter, and all of this contributes to a perfect storm scenario for wildfires.”

In addition to climate change, Sagara described that a century of logging and forest management policies have also contributed to the current wildfire patterns. Changes in timber and logging practices have led to overgrown forests throughout the country, and these densely-concentrated areas, with large swaths of overgrown vegetation, allow fires to move rapidly and grow quickly.

Lastly,  there has also been an increase in the number of people who live in Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) – areas where development and wilderness meet. From 2000-2010, half of new homes built in North Carolina were in WUI spaces. In these areas, both the stakes and potential for wildfires are higher, as 95 percent of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans.

“We are increasing the chances of having wildfires,” Sagara said. “There have been studies showing that in WUI, the presence of humans is causing more and more fires.”

Fire departments around the country are not adequately prepared to handle the growing demands of wildfire fighting. Sagara reported that in North Carolina only 20 percent of fire departments responsible for responding to wildfires have the appropriate training.

Sagara said that the best way forward is for communities to work together to protect homes and businesses. Some factors to consider are building homes with fire resistant materials, keeping rain gutters clean, and prioritizing fire hydrants and water supply access when building new developments.

In order to change trends moving forward, federal, state, and local governments must work together, said Sagara, and they have begun to do so.

“There has been a lot of work in partnering with federal government to clear areas that would prevent fire from moving into communities."

Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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