Wildfires are raging a path of violent destruction through the American West. California alone has seen more than 2.5 million acres burned, while roughly 5 million acres have burned across several states. Officials in Oregon have warned the public to expect a “mass fatality incident,” prompting roughly 40,000 to flee the state. Evacuation orders have been implemented in six states. There have been at least 35 fatalities as a result of the wildfires since mid-August. The smoke from the wildfires is affecting air quality as far east as Quebec.
The cause of the fires, and the reason for their historically large proportions, can be attributed to three principal factors: a drier and warmer climate as a result of climate change, more communities in areas that intermingle with undeveloped wild vegetation, and decades of fire suppression.
American federal policy for the last century has been to eliminate all wildfires. It is natural for lightning-caused forest fires to burn periodically, and these wildfires are a healthy process for the ecosystems supported by the land. The current policy of indiscriminate fire suppression has allowed for certain vegetation to overgrow, leaving a buildup of fuel for more ravaging blazes.
Contributing to this issue is the migration of communities closer to forests and wild vegetation. Researchers call the area where human life intermingles with undeveloped vegetation the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Though the WUI accounts for only 10% of U.S. land, it is a major source of fires, the overwhelming majority of which are started by people. The number of residential homes in the WUI grew by 32 million from 1990 to 2015. Millions of Americans live in high-risk areas, and meager government regulations exist to protect them proactively from wildfires. The influx of people living in fire-prone areas is also making fires more costly.
Governments are unlikely to impose stricter policies on developments in these areas because doing so would stifle economic growth. Even if tighter regulations were put in place, existing homes and structures would have to be retrofitted to be up to code. The scale and cost of this are enormous.
Climate change is creating conditions ideal for fires. The West Coast is expected to become increasingly dry and warm in the coming decades. These conditions will make large fires even more difficult to control. There is no reversing this trajectory, only halting its progression.
“Things could be bad, or really bad, by 2050,” Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was reported to have said of climate change in the New York Times.
The good news: the blood-orange skies that loom over California are also preventing sunlight from reaching ground level, reducing temperatures and rising humidity.
Decades of land development into fire-prone areas and a century of overly aggressive fire suppression policies, compounded with drier and warmer conditions, have to lead to the mega-fires that currently ravage the American West.
Indigenous People have a history of burning prescribed fires. The fires on the West Coast are the result of colonial land mismanagement.
As the smoke clears over the coming weeks, and the brutality of the fires becomes all too visible, let us change the way we manage the land so as to avoid a repeat of this catastrophe in the future.
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