In the United States, wildfires seem to be a problem that is only steadily getting worse. Particularly in western states, like California.
In fact, firefighters are currently battling a blaze in California’s Big Sur mountains in January 2022. Around 500 residents have had to flee their homes. Authorities closed Highway 1 in both directions. A shock, says the National Weather Service, “given the wet October and December we had last year”.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman, Cecil Juliette, says, “It’s unusual to have a fire this size here on the coast at the end of January. The fact that we had a fire this size is of great concern.”
So how did we get to this point? Perhaps more importantly: what is being done to reduce the devastation that wildfires are wreaking across America?
Looking at Data by the NIRC (National Infrastructure Resilience Council), it appears the amount of fires happening across the United States appears to be pretty consistent. That is, between 1992 and 2022, they have stuck between (approximately) 50,000 and 80,000 – with a few outliers.
The amount of destroyed acres seems to be increasing, though.
In 2015, the amount of acres destroyed by wildfires in a single year reached 10,000,000 for the first time on (official) record. In the years since, the number has hit 10,000,000 twice. That’s three times in six years.
1990-2000: an average of 3,600,745.3 acres lost.
2000-2010: an average of 6,534,250.2 acres lost.
2010-2020: an average of 7,295,772 acres lost.
In the week commencing January 17th 2022, there were twelve new large fires in five states. As of January 21st 2022, 20,686 acres have burned so far.
As we said above, it’s not that the fires are more frequent. It’s that they’re doing more damage.
To illustrate this: 2020 saw the United States’ first “gigafire”. That is a fire that has burned more than 1 million acres. The fire – which occurred in California – was bigger than every California fire from 1932 to 1999 combined.
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, put it down to two things: “climate change and the legacy of fire suppression in the 20th century.”
It’s difficult to say just how much human-driven climate change plays a part in this, Swain clarifies. However, it seems that most scientists can agree that humans have some role in this.
Some scientists believe that global warming is triggering lightning to strike more frequently. In August 2020, 14,000 lightning strikes hit California during a sweltering heatwave
This lightning then sets fire to the dry nature around the area, and the already hot air makes it even more difficult for firefighters to put out the flames. This soon resulted in the aforementioned “gigafire”.
These higher temperatures can be a result of global warming. Plus, for every 1°C of atmospheric warming there is around 12% more lightning in the US. This is according to David Romps, a climate physicist at the University of California. He also expects the number of lightning strikes to increase by 50% by the end of the century. Provided that the Earth continues to warm at the rate that it is currently.
Higher temperatures and winds are also seeing some planned burns getting out of hand.
On top of that, higher temperatures cause snow to melt sooner – up to 4 weeks earlier than in previous decades. This means that forest and other woodland is drier sooner and, therefore, for longer. In turn, this widens the window for wildfires to occur.
Wildfires are inevitable. Not only that, but they’re actually good things. As a matter of fact, they’re essential.
Many forests wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves without the occasional wildfire. The fires help to clear out dead plants, as well as provide some trees and plants with the heat they need to reproduce.
Stopping wildfires completely would not only be impossible, but would also be dangerous for the future of Earth’s wildlife.
However, more needs to be done to control and contain them. Not to mention prevent some.
According to the National Park Service, nearly 85% of wildland fires in the United States between 2000 and 2017 were caused by human activity. Typically, most of these are accidental. Campfires left unattended or not being extinguished properly, and discarded cigarettes.
In California and other western states, this skyrockets in July due to Independence Day. A combination of summer heat, dry vegetation, and sparks from fireworks leads to a huge uptick in wildfires. Some cities went as far as to ban fireworks completely in the lead up to the Fourth of July in 2021.
However, human activity also includes what Unity College describes as, “the way [humans] inhabit land”. This typically means houses built near forests and in close proximity to each other. This allows fires which would normally be small and short-term to spread quicker. Not only that, but fires that would usually be away from the public are now putting people and property at risk.
Attempts have been made to reduce wildfires’ destruction of American wildlife over the years.
Previously, US governments have dedicated resources to measures such as setting controlled fires and trimming overgrowth. Some people say that enough hasn’t been done, though. This has led to areas being “primed for significant wildfire activity”. It seems, instead of helping, it has only made it worse.
Now, the current US government has crafted a $50 billion plan to help reduce the devastation of US wildfires.
The plan will see “hot spots” targeted, with areas where nature and property meet being a big focus. It will more than double the amount of controlled fires and logging currently happening in these areas. Shockingly, these hotspots make up only 10% of fire-prone areas in the US, but they make up 80% of risk to neighborhoods because of their proximity. If residents don’t have homeowner insurance policies in place, this can lead to debt in the form of personal loans and cash advances to pay for damage.
Meanwhile, nonprofits like the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Blue Forest Conservation (BFC) are donating money to put towards non-government solutions. In 2018, the WRI and BFC created a “forest-resilience bond” of $4 million, reported the Los Angeles Times.
All in all, it looks like there is some hope. Not only for nature itself, but also for the lives of people and wildlife around it.