Each year thousands of people lose their lives to wildfires and millions are displaced by these terrible events. But there is more to this science than the lethal ‘atmospheric chemistry’ of fires. Alaska, Arizona, California, Montana, Oregon, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Greece, Russia are just a few of the places where, in recent years, wildfires have raged out of control. NASA satellites detect more than a million wildfires worldwide every year. The Western United States, especially the bay areas, has seen larger wildfires in each of the last several years and more intense burning and plenty of times fire spread faster, making them more difficult to put out and more dangerous for the communities who live in these areas.

What Ignites Wildfires

In many cases, the blazes are set by human activities, but sometimes policy fuels the flames too. Consider California bay areas, the state’s forests are overgrown partly due to past federal policies of putting out wildfires instead of letting them burn. The fire also destroys or alters soil. The nutrients in the soil, which are essential to plant growth, are removed when a fire consumes it. This makes it hard for plants to grow, especially when they need the nutrients to produce food and grow. A number of these policies were enacted in response to a devastating fire in 1910, in which millions of acres burned, over 80 people died, years passed and suppression became the go-to strategy for addressing wildfire.

In 1974, Congress passed the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act in an attempt to save lots of lives, which worked actually. Around that time, according to the act fires of all kinds killed more than 12,000 people annually. Today according to the U.S Fire Administration, the toll is lower, but a part of the reason we see increasing fuels and increasing extreme fire behavior is that we have a history of putting fires out and allowing fuels to grow, permitting fires when they are out of control.

Overgrown forests have an abundance of small and medium trees referred to as ladder fuels, which may make fires more dangerous. Ladder fuels would allow a forest fire burning often slowly along the ground to transition into the canopy, or it can spread more rapidly and when those trees are burning, the embers that are blown by the wind can ignite the neighboring trees, they will even be spread further downwind. That’s a part of the story of California’s wildfire seasons most of the time. The deadly campfire was fed by dry weather, fast winds, and ladder fuels.

Wildfire Prevention and Stopping

Initiatives like Smokey Bear urged Americans to help prevent forest fires. Wildfire is an organic reaction between a plant or animal and a substrate (material) in the environment and is thought to be a natural part of nature’s ecosystem. This is why many people don’t want to see it exterminated, as it provides beauty and value to our lives. But what can we do about it? According to recent research, 20 million acres of forest land, or nearly 20% of California would benefit from what’s called fuel treatments.

Land managers can limit the fuels that would create large, fast-paced fires in several ways, including getting out vegetation, think logging or clearing brush, prescribed burns where small fires are set deliberately, or letting natural wildfires in unpopulated areas run their course under the watch of local firefighters. But clearing out brush is expensive and labor-intensive.

First, since many of those trees are small in diameter so they do not have commercial value as timber and there is a very little financial incentive to get rid of them. And federal policies have historically favored putting out fires as soon as they start to keep people safe. Maintaining that balance of various ecosystem types in numerous fire frequencies is difficult when we move into areas with more dense human populations.

So the wildland-urban interface is really where these two challenges meet, where people reside in communities against landscapes that historically have had fire activity. Those are landscapes that are very difficult to protect when fires do start. Another option is the use of modern technology to combat the fires. Fire suppression can include the use of a variety of technologies including chemicals, water, foggers, and even fire retardant.

Unfortunately, many of these technologies are harmful and can cause damage to our environment. So instead of using them we need to start thinking about alternative options. In the case of chemical methods, they may not be good enough because they can only be used during times of low fire activity, and at that point the fire ‘pumps’ in and out of existence by itself. This means that they will not work in some areas where the weather patterns are unpredictable.

Climate change affecting Wildfire

One of the factors affecting California’s wildfire season is new housing construction in fire-prone areas. Climate climate change is adding to the problem too. Where fuels are abundant today and where Climate change is resulting in warmer and drier conditions, we are already seeing more extreme fire behavior.

As per recent Federal Data, the last decade was the warmest on record. During the summer of 2020 fires burned in the Arctic, as parts of Siberia broke the record for the highest temperature ever recorded above the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is almost always too cold and too wet to burn. So as those landscapes, which are warming thrice faster than the rest of the Earth, continue to warm and dry, we certainly expect to see more fires in those remote landscapes directly in response to Climate change.

In August of 2020, wildfires most of them sparked by lightning raged out of control across California. Earlier in the year, state officials had warned of high fire danger caused by a dry winter and warm spring. It is a pattern scientists generally attribute to global Climate change. In May, the mountain snowpack in California, Sierra Nevada was just 13% of normal and it’s not just 2020, half of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires have happened since 2015.

Across the forests of Southeast Australia, NASA mapped more fires between 2019 and 2020 than they had in the last 16 years. The fires were fueled by extreme heat and drought, hotter, drier weather sucks the moisture out of the trees, grasses, and other fuels making them more flammable and this is often making fire management all the more complicated. As conditions that allow wildfires to spread are lasting longer across United States and elsewhere, there is a shorter and shorter window where active management could happen under conditions that wouldn’t risk fires escaping and spreading into lands as a wildfire.

Fighting fire with fire might not be an option for certain regions anymore. So to help with wildfires, researchers are working on algorithms to improve forecasting. If it becomes possible to anticipate the timescales and locations where wildfires are most likely, then we will have a great chance of trying to mobilize and prepare resources to anticipate wildfires and make up more timely decisions about which fires to put out and which to let burn.

Learn more here: Wildfires

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