The forests are burning and the skies are turning red. Throughout the West Coast of the United States, smoke is blotting out the sun and poisoning the air we breathe.
In California, this wildfire season has already been the largest on record, by a lot. Oregon Governor, Kate Brown has said, “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.”
Those who are able to stay inside and shut their windows do so, isolating themselves further. Those who are less fortunate and can’t find respite indoors find their throats raw and their eyes burning from the smoke while they endure the summer heat.
Images coming out of San Francisco, California and Salem, Oregon show something out of a post-apocalyptic film, the ominous red-tinged landscape devoid of sun (not to mention people). The references to Blade Runner are now ubiquitous online and as apt an analogy as one can muster.
The view from the ground is terrible, but the view from above really puts it all into perspective.
Health impacts from this degradation of air quality can be pronounced. When the air quality index reaches ‘Very Unhealthy’ and ‘Hazardous’ levels, the equivalent in cigarettes smoked is half a pack or more per day.
The reason for all this record-breaking destruction? Climate change.
To understand why that is you have to understand what causes these fires in the first place.
What causes wildfires?
To understand what causes wildfires, let’s think about how you go about making a really great campfire (safely, of course).
When you go camping and you want to start a fire, you root around the woods for sticks and logs that are as dry as possible, knowing dampness is the enemy of a great fire (and the respect of your fellow campers).
Or you just got a precut bundle of snappy dry stuff from the corner store on the way.
The point is, it’s very very dry and only needs a little spark to come to life, catching all of the surrounding dry tinder and logs aflame in seconds.
When forests are all dried out, the whole thing is a spark away from becoming an engulfing blaze, threatening plants, wildlife, and nearby communities.
Wildfires aren’t new. They have occurred naturally year after year for millions of years and ecological systems actually benefit from these regular natural burns.
But, as these fires increase in intensity as a result of rising global temperatures, the destruction puts biodiversity and human life at risk.
How does climate change increase the risk of wildfires?
While the conditions for a wildfire are simple—dry wood and a spark—the causes of those conditions stem from somewhat more complex elements.
The exacerbation of natural wildfires into fatal infernos can ultimately be blamed on manmade climate change, which has several related consequences.
As temperatures rise each year, bringing earlier snowmelts and drier forest floors, wildfires have become more widespread, more frequent, and more destructive than ever before.
The latest bushfires in Australia were also driven largely by a longer period of hot temperatures.
Longer drought seasons
This increase in global temperatures means snowpacks melting earlier and earlier, drying out forests for longer periods of time each season.
The forests are sitting ducks for fire events, both natural (i.e. lightning strikes) and anthropogenic (i.e. ill-advised gender reveal parties). Further, rain can’t be counted on to dampen the blazes onces they’ve started.
The predictive power of satellite systems can shed light on the intensity of a coming fire season. With a warming climate comes more extreme patterns of precipitation, driving more rain to already wet regions and less rain to historically dry regions.
Less moisture in these dry areas will create more intense wildfires in the future.
As the forests have become increasingly dried out, insect infestation has begun to kill off millions of trees while making forests more susceptible to wildfires.
Bark beetles have decimated hundreds of millions of trees along the western US and Canada, creating massive amounts of fuel for future fire events. Winters that in the past have been frigid enough to kill them off are getting warmer, allowing the beetles to thrive.
How can we reduce wildfire activity?
As I mentioned earlier, wildfires themselves are not unnatural. They are nature’s way to clean up dead matter and make way for new life to take root.
But, humans have created conditions that take this simple burn too far, taking not just the dead matter but the rest too.
There are both short-term and long-term actions humans can take to reduce wildfire activity.
Taking a cue from those natural burns, prescribed or controlled burns are proactive attempts to avoid larger, more devastating wildfires.
The idea is to start slow-burning fires in the path of wildfires that can be easily managed. With all the fuel burned up already, the wildfire has nowhere to go and it dies out.
To suppress wildfires, the Forest Service needs sufficient funding. This expenditure continues to eat up a larger and larger amount of their budget each year.
Unfortunately, as climate change continues to worsen fire conditions, preventative burning and other protective measure may not be enough.
The fires that occurred in the Amazon were far from natural. Left to its own devices, the Amazon would see natural fires only once every 500 to 1,000 years. Instead, we’re seeing these fires once every 12 years.
The reason for this is Brazilian farmers using fire to clear land for agriculture. Throughout the world, logging and clearcutting have also created environments more susceptible to fire.
Further, trees are the most effective carbon capture machine. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow the increase in global temperatures.
Take climate action
If we can limit global warming to 2 degrees C, wildfire activity can be slowed. In Australia, days like those seen during the latest bushfires would be at least four times more likely with just a 2 degree increase.
The way to drive these changes is to support politicians that support climate change legislation and call those to account who refuse to do so.
This means getting involved with your local politics, protesting policies that put profits over the planet, and supporting organizations that help make change possible.
For those in the US, you can find your representative in the House and contact them to prioritize climate action legislation. Make sure you are registered to vote and work to vote out politicians that don't take our future seriously.