Something that has been all over the news for the last year is the massive surge in wild fires that we have experienced in America and all across the world. Just the other day there was a massive wildfire in Tennessee that has, at this point, left 7 dead and 53 injured (source). So why are these infernos becoming more common, more destructive, and ultimately causing more deaths? There’s a lot of reasons we understand and many more that aren’t fully mapped out yet. Below I am going to map out the major reasons for this change, and what we can do to stop it.
The largest reason that we are seeing wildfires continue to burn is the effects that climate change is having on forests. With hotter and dryer conditions, small flames can quickly grow and spread across dry forests. According to ClimateCentral, Spring and Summer are the two most common times for wildfires, and we have seen a 2.1°F raise in the last century. One place that has been devastated by these conditions is Alaska, where melting snow is leaving less land properly hydrated, causing massive death in their forests. In 2015, around 6 Million acres of woodlands burned down in Alaska, making it one of the worst years on record. That trend has continued in 2016, with continually rising temperatures causing more and more brush to light on fire, and because the forests are dried out the fire is being quickly spread by wind.
Much of the Western United States is currently being decimated by one of the worst droughts in history, specifically California. They have been in a drought for 6 years now, and 2015 was oficially their hottest year on record. (source) Because their land isn’t being properly irrigated, plants are dying, leading to dry brush that is easily combustible. There has been a noted issue with arsons setting fire to trees and campers making fires over night only for it to catch the forest on fire. (Arsonist charged for starting forest fire) Alabama, also facing a draught, has taken matters into their own hands with their governor outlawing all types of outdoor fires unti lthe drought is declared over. (source) This is obviously an extreme step, but it’s also a very serious situation. Also, there is less rainfall to naturally put out any small fires, so unless a fire crew can get a helicopter with water to the effected area within an immediate time frame, the fire will spread.
As growing seasons continue to get longer because of diversified crop lineups, there will be more fuel for these fires to continue burning. Additionally, the firefighting efforts in the past allowed some of the underbrush to burn in order to save the forest as a whole. But now, this vegetation has grown back more plentiful then it was before and has not been addressed. Many climate scientists believe that because we never addressed this issue, the wildfires won’t stop until the forest self regulates it’s vegetation growth. Another large contributor to increased burning material is civilization existing near the border of these forests. National Geographic published an article in 2013 before this major batch of wildfires started happening explaining that eventually the fires would reach these towns and burn even hotter then they would in a natural setting. Because of this, firefighters are unable to get into these towns safely to extinguish the fires and they will continue to burn.
Aside from trying to stop people from leaving exposed fires in nature and getting to the fires quick enough before they spread, there isn’t much we can do to stop these fires from raging on. If we are to believe some of the climate scientists, it will naturally sort itself out once enough of the brush that has grown in the last couple decades has burned away. But many other scientists argue that climate will only continue to get hotter and drier and that fires will continue to burn if we don’t take major steps towards changing that. Overall, I think either way is a scary prospect that this is a natural cycle or that it’s unavoidable and is our new reality. I think more in depth educational programs into having exposed fires in nature would be beneficial, and there needs to be more extreme laws and fines so that people are very cautious about doing it.