is among the worst. Out west about 2 million acres are on fire as you’re reading this. That’s an area roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. These fires have caused California to declare a state of emergency, as the fires are threatening Yosemite National Park and its giant sequoias.
In Oregon, a fire in Eagle Creek is threatening the Columbia River Gorge. Major cities across the area, Seattle, Boise and Denver are being choked by smog, ash and soot lingering in the air.
Fire season is expected each year, but this one seems worse than usual.
Climate enabled forest fires
The fires are more intense this year because they were “climate enabled.” The region suffered a major seasonal drought. Everything dried up and became easily flammable. Overall, climate change is being blamed for the increased occurrence and intensity of these fires. And while you can’t blame any particular fire on climate change, you can reasonably conclude that climate change is making our forest fires worse than ever before.
Scientists have found that major forest fires, particularly in the West, have increased over the decades. Since the 1970’s forest fires have increased fivefold and are burning up more than six times the amount of land.
In 2015 over 10 million acres were burned by forest fires. This was a record-setting year. Wildfires are a dangerous and expensive problem.
As our climate warms, our summers get hotter. Vegetation gets drier and becomes potential fuel for a forest fire. Drier vegetation ignites quicker and burns longer than green, healthy vegetation. This makes fires easier to start and harder to put out. The result is a longer and more destructive wildfire season.
Greater destruction, higher costs
We have already spent 2.1 billion fighting fires this year, according to the US Fire Service and Department of the Interior. We spent that much during the whole 2015 season. As fires get worse, so does the destruction they cause.
Trees and plants which give us oxygen and filter our air are destroyed in great numbers and are hard to replace. Air quality worsens and aggravates allergies and breathing conditions such as COPD. This will only get worse as climate change continues.
Destructive fires aren’t limited to the United States, either. They occur all over the world. Even northern, cold-climate Canada suffered its second worst fire in recorded history this year. Over 1,500 square miles of forest have been burned. They have spent over two million dollars fighting this fire alone.
No fire safe region
Our fires aren’t limited to the West. On November 28, 2016, Gatlinburg, Tennessee residents and visitors had to flee a forests fire heading their way. Fourteen thousand people filled every escape route in a mandatory evacuation ordered to keep everyone safe from the flames. Some paths to escape were blocked by fallen and burning trees and other debris. Families were separated, and some pets were abandoned as people rushed to safety.
They had reason to be afraid. In the end, 17,000 acres were destroyed in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Over 2,400 homes and places of business were damaged or destroyed completely. Fourteen people died and 134 were injured. Tennessee had not been ravished by fire like this in over 100 years.
Some people lost everything. They returned to find their homes burned to the ground along with all of their possessions. Others were unscathed. The Ripley’s Aquarium, which had to be abandoned in the evacuation, was spared by the fire, and all the animals were still alive.
Damage estimates are well over $5 million. It took a long time to get power restored and to produce safe drinking water. The good which came out of this was area churches and business raised money to house, clothe and feed the victims and to help everyone rebuild.
Are there “good” fires?
Forest fires are naturally occurring and can be a benefit to the ecosystem. Too much undergrowth can clog acreage and prevent trees growth. A fire opens those areas up to fire-resistant trees and allows for future growth. It’s all a matter of perspective. If a fire clears a forest for more desired vegetation, it’s good. If it destroys your home, it’s bad.
But there is no arguing that an out of control wildfire burning through civilization is anything but bad. It is bad for the environment, bad for our air quality and bad for our overall health and safety. We can’t do anything about lightning striking, but we can take precautions to keep from starting forest fires ourselves.
How we can help
Check local conditions before making a campfire. Consult Smokey the Bear or your local park service. Some days it is just too dry or too windy to have a fire. Embers can blow from the fire and ignite dried vegetation. If you make a fire, be sure it is completely out before you go to sleep.
If you smoke, extinguish your cigarettes and put them into a container of water. Don’t just throw the butt indiscriminately, where it could set something on fire. Same with fireworks. If you are going to light them off, monitor them and be prepared with a bucket of water just in case. Make sure the burnt fireworks are disposed of in your bucket of water. Don’t park your car on the grass. Your hot exhaust pipe could ignite dry grass or other vegetation.
Climate change is real, and it is affecting our environment. We need to take the advice of scientist in how to turn back climate change. Until then, we need to know how climate change increases forest fires and how we can help decrease them. Modern civilization has been part of the problem, so we also need to be part of the solution.
This is a guest post written by Emily Folk.
Emily is a conservation and sustainability writer.
She is the editor of Conservation Folks, and you can see her latest updates by following her on Twitter.