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Journal/Book Title/Conference

Earth's Future






American Geophysical Union

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Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.


The western United States remains well below historical wildfire activity, yet misconceptions abound in the public and news media that the area burning by wildfire each year in the American West is unprecedented. We submit that short‐term records of wildfire and a disproportionate focus on recent fire trends within high‐profile science stoke these misconceptions. Furthermore, we highlight serious risks to long‐term water security (encompassing water supply, storage, and quality) that have only recently been recognized and are underestimated as the result of skewed perspectives of wildfire. Compiling several data sets, we illustrate a comprehensive history of western wildfire, demonstrate that the majority of western settlement occurred during an artificially and anomalously low period of wildfire in the twentieth century, and discuss the troubling implications the misalignment of wildfire activity and human development may have for the long‐term projections of water security. A crucial first step toward realigning public perspectives will require scientists and journalists to present recent increases in wildfire area within the context and scale of longer‐term trends. Second, proper housing development and resource management will require an appreciation for the differing western ecosystems and the flexibility to adopt varied approaches. These actions are critical for realigning public understanding of both the direct and indirect risks associated with wildfire and ensuring adequate and appropriate measures are taken as we navigate a future of increasing fire in the West.