The carbon price of wildfire smoke

The West is on fire again. Already this year over 3 million acres have been burned by wildfires, a number that is on pace to surpass last year’s nearly record-setting 10 million plus acres. The largest fire currently burning in the west has already engulfed an area of Oregon larger than New York City. And with 95 percent of the West currently in a drought, conditions are not expected to improve anytime soon. The map below from the National Interagency Coordination Center highlights the challenges many western states will face in the coming month.

As these fires burn, they release millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Those total emissions are difficult, though not impossible, to measure. And thanks to a report from the California Air Resources Board released at the end of 2020, we can get some idea about the carbon impacts of western wildfires.

According to the report, the 4.2 million acres of wildfires that burned in California last year released 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That is the same amount of carbon dioxide emitted by 28 coal power plants over the course of a year. If you assume the same emissions for every acre burned in the US last year, then wildfires released nearly 50 coal power plants worth of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Granted, that estimate could be higher or lower depending on the type of land burned (forest fires emit more carbon dioxide than shrublands), but it is a huge amount of carbon regardless.

It is time to add climate concerns to the growing list of economic and health-related reasons we need more proactive forest management. Even prescribed burning, which more closely resembles the type of fire that western landscapes are adapted to, can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires by up to 60 percent. That is because it is burning dead and decaying biomass on the forest floor while preserving healthy, living trees that act as carbon sinks. Hopefully, this list will soon grow large enough that policymakers will take a serious approach to reforming the way we manage forests. Fire is an inescapable part of the western landscape, but the form those fires take depends largely on our approach to managing them.

Brian Isom is the research manager for the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University