Major carbon corporations linked to over a third of western US and southwestern Canadian wildfire damage

Eva Homicio

Smoke stacks

Smoke stacks in Saint John, Canada © Tony Webster

A pioneering study published in Environmental Research Letters has established a connection between the area ravaged by forest fires and the rise in drought- and fire-prone conditions to the heat-trapping emissions from the world's largest carbon producers. 

This groundbreaking analysis, led by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), titled "The Fossil Fuels behind Forest Fires," reveals that 37% of the total area burned by forest fires in the western United States and southwestern Canada since 1986 can be attributed to heat-trapping emissions traced to the world's 88 largest fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers.

The study found that emissions from these companies contributed to nearly half of the observed increase in conditions that raise the risk of large, severe forest fires across the region since 1901. This new data provides a significant resource for efforts to hold these companies accountable for past, present, and future climate damages and risks.

Human-induced climate change has transformed routine Western wildfires into extraordinarily destructive events over the past few decades. Towns are being reduced to ashes, and livelihoods are being destroyed. The study provides scientifically backed answers to questions of responsibility for this devastating destruction. 

The hope is that with this new evidence, policymakers, elected officials, and legal experts will be better equipped to hold fossil fuel companies accountable in public, political, and legal arenas.

The researchers used vapor pressure deficit (VPD)—a measure of air's ability to draw water out of plants and soils—to demonstrate how emissions traced to major fossil fuel producers have directly contributed to the steep increases in the area burned by forest fires and the rise of fire-danger conditions. 

The authors also assessed the latest science on how changes in VPD have contributed to increases in the number of large fires, the length of the fire season, the severity of forest fires, and a prolonged megadrought.

This study is part of a growing body of climate attribution research that connects emissions from the extraction and use of fossil fuel products to increased average temperature of the Earth’s surface, global sea level rise, and ocean acidification. 

Over 30 states, cities, and counties are currently suing major oil and gas corporations to seek redress for the harm they have suffered from climate change and to limit future emissions. The novel, interdisciplinary findings in this UCS research are positioned to accelerate improved corporate accountability.

The communities, cultures, and ecosystems of the western United States and southwestern Canada have evolved alongside wildfire for thousands of years. However, over the past several decades, almost all aspects of wildfires have worsened across the forests of Western North America, including land in California, Canada, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. 

The damages from these hazards are mounting, with impacts extending far beyond a given fire scar, harming people, economies, and ecosystems.

It's crucial to acknowledge that the burden of increasingly dangerous wildfires is not borne equally. Communities of color and low-income communities face disproportionate public health risks from wildfire due to systemic socioeconomic injustices and are less able to recover. 

People of color, particularly Native Americans, are also more geographically at risk of wildfires and smoke exposure.

In addition to holding fossil fuel companies accountable, UCS experts recommend programs and policies that rapidly reduce heat-trapping emissions, reduce human-ignited wildfires, increase resources for forest health, and protect community health and safety, including through equitable investments in fire preparedness and recovery.

Earlier we reported: Wildfire threat prompts evacuation alert for 21,000 residents in Fort St. John, B.C

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