Will Cleaner Fuels Really Reduce Forest Fires?


As relentless wildfires rage their way down and across the West, there’s an obvious question to ask: “How do we stop or slow down these deadly fires?” One answer lies in making a switch to clean fuels. To some, the connection between wildfires, climate change, and clean fuels is tangential. Others claim this summer’s fires were nothing more than humans causing mischief and millions of acres of poorly managed forests. Even accepting several arson fires and a government that continually and chronically underfunds forest management, there’s a much larger point. It’s similar to asserting ocean fish stocks collapsed because bigger fish ate them and not because humans overfished the waters. For 40 years now, scientists have known pumping carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere has caused our planet to warm. As any four-year-old can tell you, when the weather gets warm, snow melts. This is now happening on a global scale. Regions like the Western United States are dependent on snowpack to provide drinking water and to nourish our forests. When that snow never arrives or melts prematurely, it leaves our forests dry. That makes for good kindling. Throw in hotter summers and 12,000 lightning strikes, and you have a kiln that is beyond ripe for combustion.

So What Does This Have To Do With An Extra Penny At The Pump?

In Washington state, transportation fuels directly cause 40% of all climate pollution, which is more than any other economic sector. These carbon emissions add to the astounding amount of CO2 humankind has put in the atmosphere over the last century.

Hotter, drier seasons, driven by fossil fuels’ burning, have made the world more prone to erupt in flames. It might seem like a leap to conclude that driving your family sedan has much impact in a world with 7.8 billion people, but consider this:

Less Snowpack Caused By Climate Change Leaves Forests Drier In Summer

Snowpack deters fires in a very straightforward way: the longer things are wet, the less likely they are to ignite. But the snowpack is melting much faster than ever before. In fact, spring now arrives 10 days earlier than it did in the 1950s, leaving dry land exposed during the high temperatures of summer and ripe for a conflagration. In 2019, the Cascade Range had less than 50% of its median snowpack level for this time of year.

A 2015 EPA report concluded, “In the United States, changes in snowpack currently represent one of the best documented hydrological signs of climate change. Snowpack is a key indicator and plays a vitally important role both in the environment and to society.” If the snowpack is an indicator, the indication is that early spring means dryer forests and more fires.

These climate-crisis induced wildfires interrupt and destroy entire ecosystems. They lead to the death of people and animals, the destruction of property. They also create “carbon feedback” when burnt trees release carbon dioxide they store back into the environment, further destroying the atmosphere. Now, add to the top of that, “Past fire suppression and forest management practices have led to a build-up of flammable fuelwood, which increases wildfire risks.” That said, even the most efficient forest management tools could not mitigate the melting of the snowpack.

Okay. Now for the good news. We have a way of combating this destruction today through an aggressive switch to cleaner fuels. By lowering our environmental impact, we can prolong the snowpack, hydrate the forests, and reduce fires’ severity.

What Kind of Impact Will Cleaner Fuels Make?

A study done by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency found that by switching to clean fuels by 2030, we can reduce 26% of Puget Sound’s greenhouse gas pollution. The report details how that transition will occur. “The standard will achieve reductions by accelerating the transition to clean fuels through the deployment of electric vehicles, liquid biofuel blending (such as ethanol, biodiesel, and renewable diesel), and renewable natural gas.”

Plug-In Vehicles Are One Way To Reduce Transportation Emissions

Not only do these fuels reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 percent when calculating the entire lifecycle to get gas to the pump, but we can make greener gas and diesel right here in Washington using farm, forest, and food waste. This will help create thousands of jobs in smaller and rural Washington communities that haven’t benefited economically from the Central Puget Sound tech boom.

And speaking of managing forests, Washington has enough forest waste to provide almost half of the sustainable jet fuel needs for Sea-Tac.

The naysayers point to this clean fuels strategy’s futility if other states and nations continue their climate pollution pace. They ask, “Why should Washington drivers have to pay for everyone else’s mess?”

The answer to that skepticism is that clean fuels are a moral imperative, a cultural imperative, and an economic imperative. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you know our beautiful surroundings are part of our heritage. If we want to leave this legacy to future generations, we must be willing to take local action to solve a global problem.

And make no mistake, Washington’s economy is stronger than most of the country because young and talented people are drawn here because of our outdoor bounty. Clean fuels will only further our economic advantage. California, which passed a clean fuel standard in 2011, is now home to one in every six clean energy jobs in the nation. They’ve created over 20,000 new jobs just in the clean transportation sector.

It’s also worth noting that gas prices are 40¢ per gallon less in California today than before implementing their clean fuel program (LCFS).

With oil company value shrinking, It’s no longer a question of “if” clean fuels will be adopted; it’s now a question of when. Washington has benefitted from leading the way in aerospace, software, and life sciences. Likewise, those states that are early adopters of cleaner standards for fuel will become the backbone of our nation’s 21st-century supply.

If we embrace clean fuels, our kids and grandkids might still have a chance to play in the snow, enjoy breathing the summer air instead of choking on it, and we can save lives and billions of dollars in property damage. Essentially, we can put the wildfires back where they belong–on ice.