Wildfires have been a part of the ecosystem for millions of years. Early humans likely used fires to clear land and drive game. Native Americans used fire to manage the landscape. However, the frequency and intensity of wildfires have increased in recent years due to a combination of factors; climate change, human development, and natural cycles. The extent to which wildfires have evolved in recent years is a testimony to the ongoing industrial activities that we as humans continue to pursue. We’re not alone in our actions. Lightning strikes are often responsible, but we are more responsible – human activity makes up for over 80% of wildfires. In the last decade in the US, wildfire activity has escalated to the point that authoritative voices have declared it no longer wildfire season, but wildfire year. The American West remains the most afflicted area – California leads the way as the most fire-prone area in the US. Roughly 3 million acres of US land – close to the size of Connecticut – has thus far been scorched this year alone. Throw in the fact that summer’s in full swing, and what is for sure, is that the burning is only going to escalate.
An All-Year affair
Recent decades have seen the severity and overall size of wildfires increase across most of the US – the 2018 wildfire season in California was the most destructive in the state’s history – acres burned, and property loss was at an all-time high. For many in the service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), fire season was something in addition to the rest of the four seasons. In more recent times, the idea of it being a season has given way to a year. The expansion of the wildfire period is attributable to numerous factors – winter snow is melting earlier, rain is coming later in the fall, and what used to be a 4-month fire season now lasts 6 to 8 months. In addition, throughout California, Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee, and New Jersey, fires have burned well outside the typical fire season. Fires in winter have become a norm. Other factors include extended drought, tree mortality, and invasive species – all allowing fires to easily ignite and spread fast. Throw in a century’s worth of aggressive fire suppression policies that allowed fuels to accumulate, allowing fires to expand in size, and you have a series of conditions that make it a lot harder to control wildfires.
A call for improved policies
It goes without saying that climate change has exacerbated the conditions under which wildfires occur and flourish. Humans have upped CO₂ levels to 50% more than what they were prior to the industrial revolution. Thus, in the past century, the world has warmed by 1.1°C and if things persist, it could reach 2.7°C by the end of this century. In addition to the multifaceted problem that is climate change, studies have revealed that the US government’s approach to mitigating the health risks of wildfire smoke is failing Americans across all income groups. To date, policies have focused mainly on education, and that in itself has focused on actionable tasks like staying indoors, closing windows, and using air filters. These same studies have gone on to show that improved education and information about the health implications of wildfire smoke are not enough to protect people from its harm. In addition, these policies vary in their effectiveness due to a number of socio-economic barriers.
As California and the West continue to experience an increase in heavy smoke days, lawmakers from several applicable and affected states have introduced bills that would give the president the right to declare a “smoke emergency.” This would allow for federal funding to create clean air shelters, relocate vulnerable populations, and establish grant programs for community planning around wildfire smoke. Regrettably, these bills remain to be enacted. One thing that doesn’t require enacting is the Cambridge Mask PRO. For immediate results against the harmful effects of wildfire smoke, look no further. The Cambridge Mask blocks particles down to size PM0.3 and provides the benefit of blocking most smoke particulates.
At the end of the day, it’s going to take extraordinary levels of investment over a consistent period to stem the tide of wildfire risk and reduce smoke exposure for all parties.
Wildfire Preventative Tips
Outside of having effective laws with long-term results enacted, we as a society can take various steps to curtail and reduce the risk of forest fires and wildfires, and these include:
- Limiting our use of outdoor fires and applying the best practices when in a forest
- Zoning off fire-prone areas and thus reducing human sprawl in such areas
- Insisting upon the implementation of fire-resistant building codes and fire-safe urban planning
- Improved forest management, including the trimming of overgrowth and prescribed burns
- A continued effort to reduce our carbon emissions
The future of wildfire relies on climate change and human activity, and while this future is hard to foresee, one thing’s for certain: slowing down and hopefully reversing the accumulation of CO₂ and other greenhouse gases will slow the current proliferation of wildfire risk. If we fail to abide by the Paris Agreement of keeping global warming under 2°C, which is the minimal requirement, then such a blunder will exact a heavy toll. Our actions matter, more than ever.