Wildfires: A Raging Blaze
Wildfires have become an increasingly concerning issue within recent years, devastating areas such as the West Coast of the U.S. and Australia. These rampant fires if left unchecked can cause billions of dollars of damage, displace entire communities, and increase air pollution. In order to keep such consequences in check, it is important to understand the causes of wildfires and how to best prevent them.
Wildfires are uncontrolled, unplanned fires that commonly occur in forests, grasslands, and savannas. They are largely initiated through three different methods: natural lightning, human negligence, or technical failure. Specifically, wildfires commonly occur when humans leave campfires unattended, haphazardly discard cigarettes, carelessly burn debris, or commit other accidents (“Wildfire Causes and…”). Over the last 5 years, human faults have caused 88% of wildfires in the U.S., accounting for 45% of the total acres burned (“Wildfire Statistics”). Recently, a mishap at a gender reveal party ignited the El Dorado wildfire in California, which burned thousands of acres and caused one fatality as well as numerous injuries. The fire raged on for over two months, causing severe damage due to a lack of care (“El Dorado Fire”). This event also highlights the fact that many of us are more focused on our own lives than the environment, when in fact the environment is what provides us with life. By simply being conscious of the environment, we can lower the harm done on our ecosystems and help preserve beautiful, diverse landscapes.
Wildfires can also be caused by faulty hardware or technology. In one such case, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) installed flawed infrastructure, which sparked the deadly Camp Fire in California, resulting in over 80 deaths (Brekke). In such situations, it is important that we hold the culprits responsible as to discourage further carelessness.
Wildfires are also closely linked to deforestation. One major area of study is the Amazon rainforest, where trees are commonly cut down for agriculture or logging. Studies have shown that disturbing natural forests through deforestation reduces the amount of moisture, thus making forests much more prone to wildfires (Cardil). Importantly, this connection highlights the relationship between environmental issues. Working to solve one problem can go a long way in finding solutions for other issues as well.
Regardless of what causes the wildfires, their spread is limited by fuel availability, such as the number of trees and dead leaves, fuel aridity, or dryness, and other climate factors. The drier an area is, the more suitable it is for a wildfire to occur at greater magnitudes (“Wildfires”). This is one of the driving factors behind the increase in wildfire intensity. Climate change increases the length of wildfire seasons, when fuel is drier and more primed to burn. Additionally, increasingly frequent droughts make the probability of a wildfire igniting much more likely (“Wildfire Management…”). Moreover, climate change has contributed to an increase in lightning strikes, which are one of the major causes of wildfires. These effects have culminated in a gradual increase in annual acres burned (“Climate Change Indicators…”). In fact, the three years with the highest acreage burned have all occurred since 2015. Accordingly, the number of structures damaged by wildfires has also skyrocketed, reaching over 17,000 in 2020 (“Wildfires destroy thousands”). Overall, recent trends have shown that wildfires are growing in intensity, frequency, and socioeconomic impact.
Naturally occurring wildfires can be beneficial to the environment by recycling nutrients and clearing space for new plant growth. Despite the fact they can result in the death of many plants and animals, they are essential for maintaining healthy levels of biodiversity in many ecosystems. In fact, the Forest Service sometimes organizes prescribed fires, which are planned out for the benefit of an ecosystem (“Prescribed Fires”). However, an excess of wildfires renders ecosystems unable to undergo succession and recover. This lowers species diversity and the overall health of the ecosystem. Furthermore, wildfires negatively impact watersheds’ ability to retain water, often resulting in landslides and falling debris (“Wildfires in the…”). Lastly, and most importantly, wildfires release unfathomable amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. Consequently, a feedback loop is formed where climate change increases the spread of wildfires, which in turn exacerbates the effects of climate change.
In addition to disastrous effects on the environment, wildfires can also severely harm human health. Though wildfires can obviously directly result in the deaths of first responders by means of injury and carbon monoxide, lots of damage is done indirectly. Foremost, wildfires introduce high levels of air pollution into the atmosphere, putting those with respiratory issues at risk. The resulting poor air quality from wildfires has been shown to cause heart attacks, strokes, and other fatal conditions (“How Wildfires Affect…”). Recent studies have shown that over 33,000 deaths each year are linked to wildfire-caused particle pollution (Chen). Wildfires also lower water quality by introducing toxic chemicals, an effect that can last years. Another, less widely known consequence of wildfires is the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, in survivors. Studies have shown that survivors of the Camp Fire in 2018 had the same rate of PTSD as war veterans (Wheeling). In order to alleviate the psychological and physical damage of wildfires, we must solve the climate crisis and work to prevent wildfires.
Wildfires are also capable of significantly impairing economic growth. Due to their ruinous nature, wildfires can often cost up to billions in structural damage. For example, the Camp Fire, one of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in the past century, destroyed over 18,000 structures, which resulted in the almost complete destruction of the town of Paradise, bringing recovery costs to around 16 billion (Flynn). Additionally, transportation systems were disrupted, further stalling economic growth. The fire also forced over 50,000 people to move, 20,000 of which were displaced long-term. This caused an increase in home prices and homelessness for the nearby city of Chico (Bernstein). Lastly, wildfires and the subsequent smoke have hindered the tourism and recreation industries. In total, Californian wildfires in 2018 alone cost the U.S. economy an unprecedented $148.5 billion (Reiff).
Stopping wildfires is a daunting task, but by taking small steps we can work toward a healthier environment. One way of preventing wildfires is to limit the number of human-caused fires. We can achieve this simply by avoiding being lackadaisical when it comes to disposing of flammable materials. We can also proactively educate ourselves and others on safe fire practices, such as how to safely choose and maintain a campfire. One major contributor in this aspect is the long running Smokey Bear campaign, which promotes wildfire prevention (“About the Campaign”). Furthermore, introducing policies that protect forests and improving infrastructure maintenance would also make forests less vulnerable to wildfires (“Fires”). Prescribed fires can further decrease the risk of extreme fires. However, no matter what we may do, it will all be in vain unless we focus on the root cause behind the increase in wildfire severity: climate change. By focusing on mitigating the effects of climate change, wildfires will naturally become less severe as wildfire seasons shorten and fuel aridity decreases.
In summary, wildfires have been growing worse each year, expedited by climate change. This has resulted in catastrophic losses, including increased mortality, air pollution, economic losses, habitat destruction, and climate change. But, by working together, we can successfully prevent wildfires and minimize these devastating effects.
“El Dorado Fire.” InciWeb, inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/7148/.
“Wildfire Causes and Evaluations.” National Park Service, 27 Nov. 2018, www.nps.gov/articles/ wildfire-causes-and-evaluation.htm.
“Wildfires destroy thousands of structures each year.” Headwaters Economics, Nov. 2018, headwaterseconomics.org/natural-hazards/structures-destroyed-by-wildfire/
“Wildfires.” National Geographic Society, 18 July 2019, www.nationalgeographic.org/ encyclopedia/wildfires/.
“Wildfire Management.” National Integrated Drought Information System, www.drought.gov/ sectors/wildfire-management.
“Prescribed Fire.” Forest Service, www.fs.usda.gov/managing-land/prescribed-fire.
“Wildfire Statistics.” Congressional Research Service, 4 Oct. 2021, sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/ IF10244.pdf.
“About the Campaign. Smokey Bear, The Ad Council, smokeybear.com/en/smokeys-history/about-the-campaign.
“Climate Change Indicators: Wildfires.” Environmental Protection Agency, Apr. 2021, www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-wildfires.
“How Wildfires Affect Our Health.” American Lung Association, 1 Jan. 2016, www. lung.org/blog/how-wildfires-affect-health.
Wheeling, Kate. “Wildfire survivors face another threat: PTSD.” High County News, 21 Dec. 2021, www.hcn.org/articles/wildfire-survivors-face-another-threat-ptsd.
Chen, Gongbo, et al. “Mortality risk attributable to wildfire-related PM2·5 pollution: a global time series study in 749 locations.” The Lancet Planetary Health, vol. 5, no. 9, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00200-X.
Flynn, Matthew. “The Wrath of Wildfires in the 21st Century.” ArcGIS StoryMaps, 8 Dec. 2020, storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/7ef714daaac94d5596bc1a38d3443a0c.
Reiff, Nathan. “How Fire Season Affects the Economy.” Investopedia, 26 July 2021, www.investopedia.com/how-fire-season-affects-the-economy-5194059.
Bernstein, Sharon. “Refugees in their own country as wildfire destroys California towns.” Reuters, 2 Oct. 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-wildfires-displacement/refugees-in-their-own-country-as-wildfire-destroys-california-towns-idUSKBN26N1MW.
“Fires.” Global Forest Watch, www.globalforestwatch.org/topics/fires/.
Cardil, Adrián, et al. “Recent deforestation drove the spike in Amazonian fires.” Environmental Research Letters, vol. 15, no. 12, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/abcac7.
Brekke, Dan. “Cal Fire’s Official Finding: PG&E Power Lines Touched Off Camp Fire.” KQED, 15 May 2019, www.kqed.org/news/11747485/cal-fires-official-finding-pge-equipment-touched-off-camp-fire.