Study Says People Start 84% of All U.S. Wildfires

The horrific wildfire that scorched Gatlinburg, Tenn., last November, killing 14 people, was human-caused — and that’s not unusual: Whether deliberate or accidental, a whopping 84% of all wildfires in the U.S. are started by people, says a new study.

The remaining 16% are started naturally, by lightning, according to the report, one of the most comprehensive fire studies to date.

The study also found that humans have added almost three months to the national fire season on average. “Thanks to people, the wildfire season is almost year-round,” said study lead author Jennifer Balch of the University of Colorado. Humans also account for nearly half the acreage burned each year.

Balch and her study co-authors looked at 1.5 million wildfires from 1992 to 2012 and found that the human-ignited fire season was three times longer than the lightning-ignited fire season and also added an average of 40,000 wildfires per year.

“Fires are burning earlier in the spring in the Southeast and later in the fall in the West,” Balch said. Fighting wildfires in the U.S. has exceeded $2 billion in recent years, the study said.

“To our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive assessment of the role of human-started wildfires across the United States over the past two decades,” the authors said in the study.

“Although considerable fire research in the United States has rightly focused on increased fire activity (larger fires and more area burned) because of climate change, we demonstrate that the expanded fire niche as a result of human-related ignitions is equally profound,” the study said.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Doyle Rice