Wildfires and Climate Change 101

Nico Howeth


November 16, 2021

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Why’s the world on fire all of a sudden?

It’s natural for the occasional wildfire to blaze through the US – particularly in drought-prone areas like the Southwest. What is unusual is that these fires seem to be occurring more frequently, more ferociously and beyond the usual fire season. So why is this happening? 

There is one principal factor that increases the likelihood of more frequent and more ferocious wildfires: hot temperatures. The United States Department of Agriculture has projected that “an average annual 1 degree Celsius temperature increase would increase the median burned area per year by as much as 600 percent,” (Center for Energy and Climate Solutions). Most US wildfires are initially directly started by people – over 80% according to a study from 2017 (Daley, 2017). However, it is the conditions exacerbated by the climate emergency that make these wildfires pick up size and speed and ultimately result in devastating damage to the communities they rampage through. 

Hot air with low humidity is like a “thirsty sponge,” (Borunda, 2020). In the Western US, hot air is rarely humid. What it typically lacks in moisture, it will try to pick up from any source of moisture around it. As dry, hot wind barrels through the atmosphere, it will pick up moisture from the soil, brush and trees all around it. This creates the perfect fuel for a wildfire to grow and move through. One study, cited by National Geographic, found that since the 1970’s, “​​human-caused climate change has caused more than half of the drying-out of burnable materials and consequent fire risk,” (Borunda, 2020). This is only expected to worsen as temperatures continue to rise year-round. 

Even worse: it’s not just in the Western US. Drought is striking a good portion of the US as a whole, unlike it has before. Recent reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association have discovered that “nearly half of the continental U.S. is in a moderate to exceptional drought, marking the most significant spring drought in the country since 2013,” (Newburger, 2021). Climate scientist, Eric Holthaus stated the following:

“72% of the western US is currently in ‘severe’ drought or worse. This is now the most extensive severe drought in recorded history. We are in a climate emergency,” (Newburger).

SOURCE: Washington Post 

Like Never Before

Statistically, it is clear that wildfires in the US are happening more often and are bigger and worse than they have been in the past. But what is it like for the brave people who fight these fires for a living? 

Lifetime employed firefighters continue to testify: the fires we’re seeing today are like none they’ve ever faced before. Diane Travis, a fuels manager with the Forest Service for over thirty years, explained that in the 1970’s there used to be a rule that firefighters were supposed to put out wildfires by 10am the morning after the start of the blaze – something she now calls “laughable,” (Smith, 2021). But the fires aren’t just getting worse gradually over decades – they’re getting worse year to year. In just the first five months of 2021, California responded to “2,875 wildfires that burned more than 16,800 acres,” which according to Alisha Herring, a representative of state firefighting agency CalFire, is a “‘significant increase in both fires and acres compared to 2020,’” (Newburger, 2021). That translates to thousands of employed firefighters working non-stop, year-round and billions of dollars out of both the state and federal budget. 

Kelly Martin has described her over three decades of experience in the Forest Service as “warlike,” (Kaplan, 2021). Currently, the president of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, Martin worries about the kind of lasting impact this has on firefighters who are beginning to face what can sometimes feel insurmountable. Martin explained, “‘Watching what the current wildland firefighters are faced with, last year and this year, it is exponentially greater in terms of risk and trauma,’” (Kaplan, 2021). While firefighters could previously take the Western US’ fire off-season to recover, “now there is no off-season,” (Kaplan, 2021). One smokejumper, “a highly trained firefighter who parachutes into remote blazes” whom the Washington Post interviewer did not name, said the following: 

“‘My body is just beat up…I feel probably 10 years older than I am. But the mental part is even crazier: Almost everyone I know on fire knows someone who has committed suicide, or has had to talk a friend off the ledge.’”

Experts worry about firefighters’ ability to face these new unprecedented kinds of fires as states are left underfunded and understaffed in a job which is growing more and more mentally and physically exhausting. 

In Our Own Communities 

Fleeing from a fire can be terrifying. In a matter of hours, people may lose personal, cherished possessions like a lifetime’s worth of family photos, homes, livelihoods and even the lives of loved ones. Fires do not discriminate what they burn in their path. 

It is difficult to describe what living through a wildfire is like. But living through it is certainly different from hearing about it on the news. Chaos is the best way to describe the feeling of evacuation – debating about what to take, when to leave, what to do with pets, where to go, where to stay, when to panic, when to stay calm, how much you’d be willing to let burn. That’s if you’re lucky and have even enough time to contemplate such matters for more than a fleeting moment. It’s an emergency  – urgent – and there’s no time for second-guessing in an emergency: you just have to act. 

What news stories often don’t report on, what you only know if you’ve lived through it, is everything that happens after a community faces a wildfire. Homes are destroyed, lives lost, people’s health – physical and mental – is weakened. The process of rebuilding can be excruciating and even when things are rebuilt, the community may never be the same. Daisy Simmons, a writer for Yale Climate Connections, described her personal experience evacuating for a California fire like this: “Living through a fire can be a trauma. So can returning home,” (Simmons). Even if someone survives a fire, even if they have the funds or government support to rebuild their homes and businesses, even if someone’s home does not burn down – which are big, huge “if’s” – it can still be traumatic to live through disaster. 

The Future Ahead 

There are practical considerations to preventing tragedy during disaster. It is important to practice general fire safety in both making sure not to accidentally start a fire as well as being prepared ahead of time to know what to do in case of an emergency.

In the midst of disaster, it is imperative to bear in mind which communities will be impacted the most. Is emergency information being made available to non-English speaking populations? Are ASL translations available? Are emergency evacuation plans wheelchair accessible? How are undocumented people accessing monetary aid when federal aid in inaccessible to them? How is the unhoused community fairing? 

Beyond these considerations with more immediate and simpler solutions in sight, the only real way to prevent fires from continuing to occur more frequently and ferociously is to combat the climate emergency. The bottom line is: we must curb greenhouse gas emissions immediately. Individually, that means spreading education about climate science, contacting representatives, showing up to protests, engaging in local government, staying up to date about climate news, etc. The climate emergency is not an insurmountable challenge so long as we put our efforts together. 

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indy Howeth

Nico Howeth

Storytelling Fellow

Nico is a Storytelling Fellow based in Washington D.C. He produces content and ideation for all social media channels as well as short-form videos for campaigns and ads. He is currently in his fourth year at American University.

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