Wildfires Are Burning Less Land, But That's Not All Good News

Wildfires aren't as large as they once were. That's good and bad.

Wildfires Are Burning Less Land, But That's Not All Good News
U.S. Department of the Interior

Wildfires aren't burning as much of the Earth as they used to. And that's good ... right?

Satellite data of wildfires globally show the total land area burned shrank almost 25 percent in under two decades. It's especially evident in the grasslands of South America and Africa.

Some of it has to do with changing rainfall patterns, but scientists say increases in "managed landscapes" drive the long-term trend. Researchers found the more developed an area is, the less likely it is to burn. As cities and farms grow, we put more time, effort and money into protecting our land investments.

But fires can be useful, too. They recycle ground-cover and fertilize soil. They're also an important part of climate modeling because they affect greenhouse gas concentrations.

Firefighters working on a wildfire.

Maybe We Should Just Let Wildfires Burn

Experts say smaller, more frequent fires would reduce the amount of fuel that can support large, uncontrollable fires.


And when smaller fires are suppressed, we could eventually get larger, more destructive ones. This is why some experts call for more prescribed fires; they're easier to control.

So unless we change how we manage fires today, researchers expect the current trend will persist. As development expands, burned areas will continue to shrink.