Fire Can Be Good for Global Warming


The kind of fire we're talking about here is one that people intentionally set. I watched a so-called prescribed burn in a forest in Brazil, along with fire ecologist Jennifer Balch.

…In addition to what it destroys on the ground, a wildfire emits thousands of tons of carbon that eventually warm the atmosphere. Balch says the government spends four times as much money every year fighting fires than it does on preventive measures, such as controlled burns.

So, many ecologists have been pushing for more prescribed fires.

…But one nagging question has been which puts more carbon up into the atmosphere, a series of small, prescribed burns or the occasional big wildfire? So, Wiedinmyer (a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research) developed a computer model to calculate that, using the record of both kinds of fires in the western U.S. from 2001 to 2008. She published the results in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Although the numbers are rough, the outcome is clear: prescribed fires do emit carbon but much less than the wildfires they prevent.

Dr. WIEDINMYER: We could reduce the emissions from wildfires by as much as 25 percent. And fires emit a significant amount of CO2 to the atmosphere.