As we talked about in the welcome post for this blog, we are stumbling, bumbling and shambling through a slow-motion apocalypse. There are a lot of ways in each we are suffering in this apocalypse. The COVID Pandemic, global climate change, fresh water issues and many more that we will explore over time.
But one of the most immediate and spectacular signs of the shambling apocalypse is wildfire. The wildfire issue, as most environmental issues are, is very complex. For the purposes of this discussion I’ll do my best to accurately simplify the issue, at least for western North America. In western North America, drought is a historic reality, however there is strong evidence that global climate change has had an impact on the intensities of these droughts. There are a lot of reasons these fires have been so big, again to simplify. Drought is a factor, invasive species tree deaths, higher temperatures and a long history of fire suppression that has left a lot of fuel in forests. Put all of these things together and you set the stage for megafires. Add with an ever increasing number of people building homes in forests, it turns into a situation where you have far more homes lost, and far more areas that firefighters have to prioritize in dealing with fires.
The Dixie fire in 2021 is the second largest wildfire in California history, as of today it has burned over 910,000 acres. Simultaneously, the Calder Fire has caused evacuations in South Lake Tahoe as it has ballooned to over 215.000 acres. It’s September 6th, fire season typically peaks from October to November. This year is not unique in California, in fact, over the last few years in California and Oregon this has become the norm. The college I work at now routinely plans for 3-4 campus closure days annually due to poor air quality as a result of wildfires. To understand the scale at which this is happening, so far in 2021 Calfire has responded to over 7,000 fire incidences.
But it’s not just the desert west in America that is dealing with this issue. In 2020 Australian wildfires scorched over 46 million acres and it is estimated over one billion animals were impacted. For wildfires in Siberia:
The fires raging in Siberia are bigger than fires in Greece, Turkey, Italy, the United States and Canada combined, with analysts warning that this year could surpass Russia’s worst fire year, 2012, according to Yaroshenko.
There have also been significant fires in Greece, Turkey and Canada. So this, with the exception of Asia at this point, is a large scale global problem. The other issue is that fires very often had well defined fire seasons. But as we hear often now from fire officials in California, fire season is pretty much year round now.
What this means is that for people that live in these areas, they have started to just accept there are certain times of the year, in certain areas where you can just expect to have to deal with wildfire impacts every single year.
A comment on the Caldor Fire really brought this home for me. The person talking said they’d stopped camping in the Tahoe Region during September or October due to how much smoke there normally is. However this year, the month of August has seen that region inundated with smoke. Personally, as the fall arrives I want to do some camping, but I’ve ruled out the Sierras and am focusing on the coast or the desert, just because they are areas less likely to be impacted.
Now something can be done about all of these megafires. The Sooutheastern US does not experience the same impacts. There are a couple of reasons for this, first, the environment is not as dry, although droughts do occur. And although there has been significant conifer forest destruction by insects, they have fewer fires, at least in part because they manage fire differently in the south. They do far more prescribed burning in the south, it’s well regulated and very effective. In the west this has not been as accepted a practice. Prescribed burns remove fuel from the forest and create fire that burns at a temperature that doesn’t permanently damage forests. I know people advocate for thinning and cutting forests, but in fact opening up the canopy can actually promote ground level growth which is perfect fuel if it dies in a drought year.
Additionally, homeowners can do a lot to protect their homes. A combination of careful prescribed burning, letting fires in extreme wilderness burn and people reducing the chances their homes will burn, can reduce the impact of megafires on humans and reduce the number of megafires in general. Sure, it’s a finger in the dyke, of global climate change and it’s impacts, but it’s a start.