How Climate Change Fuels Wildfires

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What is climate change?

Climate change refers to the changes in climate patterns, weather, natural disasters, and more that have happened on Earth from the mid-century onward. These changes, which are namely marked by the steady increase of the Earth’s average global temperature (which NASA surmises has risen by about 0.8°C (1.4°F) since 1880), are a direct result of human processes that release carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. These emissions become stuck in the Earth’s atmosphere, unable to be released into space, and result in the warming of the average global temperature, which then causes climate change.

Can climate change cause wildfires?

Aside from the warming of the average global temperature, the most obvious way scientists and researchers can measure the impact of climate change is through uncharacteristic changes in weather. Climate change can cause an increased frequency and intensity in extreme weather events. These include more intense rainfall, snowstorms, and droughts, as well as natural disasters such as hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, hail storms, and, of course, wildfires. These are obviously a huge concern as natural disasters threaten both the human and animal population and can destroy entire communities.

Yes, climate change can cause wildfires. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, climate change increases the risk and longevity of wildfires, particularly in the Western United States, where weather conditions tend to favor wildfires. Most recently, former President Barack Obama publicly highlighted the connection between the wildfires on the U.S.’s West Coast with our current climate crisis.

“The fires across the West Coast are just the latest examples of the very real ways our changing climate is changing our communities,” Obama wrote. At the time of this writing, San Francisco recently made headlines when local wildfires caused the sky across the Bay Area to appear smokey orange. According to the Bay Area Air Quality, lingering wildfire smoke left over in the air caused the orange hue. The New York Times writes that a record 2.5 million acres have burned thus far in California.

However, the Bay Area is not the first area — either nationally or internationally — to experience the effects of climate change as it relates to fueling wildfires. Earlier this year, the Australian Bushfires of 2020 resulted in forced evacuations, mass destruction of homes and various wildlife, and an alarming death toll.

So, what is the actual scientific connection between climate change and wildfires?

“Climate change causes forest fuels (the organic matter that burns and spreads wildfire) to be [drier] and has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western United States.” 

But while it’s true that climate change creates conditions that can cause wildfires in the first place, it is also true that climate change also makes it harder to extinguish them as well.

How does climate change fuel wildfires?

Climate change negatively impacts wildfires in all ways. Not only does it create dryer conditions ideal for wildfires to begin, but climate change is also responsible for making wildfires more difficult to put out.

“Once a fire starts — more than 80 percent of U.S. wildfires are caused by people — warmer temperatures and drier conditions can help fires spread and make them harder to put out,” the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions states. “Warmer, drier conditions also contribute to the spread of the mountain pine beetle and other insects that can weaken or kill trees, building up the fuels in a forest.”

Those are not the only ways in which climate change affects wildfires. In fact, though 80 percent of fires are started by people, AZ Central also points out that land use and forest management (or mismanagement) are also to blame. Arizona is another area drastically impacted by drought conditions and wildfires.

“Expanding development in wildland areas has put more people and homes at risk, and a century of prioritizing fire suppression has, in many areas, left overgrown forests with accumulated fuels that increase the danger,” AZ Central writes.

When lands are misused and forest management isn’t done in a sustainable way, it can contribute to environmental conditions ideal for drought, which obviously worsens a wildfire’s intensity and strengthens its inability to be extinguished. Overgrown brush and accumulated fuels increase an area’s likelihood of developing a wildfire. 

Is climate change responsible for wildfires?

Yes, climate change can cause wildfires to start and it can also make them more difficult to manage and extinguish. However, to blame climate change without taking accountability for what causes climate change is perhaps missing the point. Since human processes like transportation, energy consumption, and more ultimately contribute to climate change, it is actually people that are responsible for wildfires.

Are wildfires getting worse?

You could say that. And moving forward, they might just continue to get worse if we, as a society, don’t do much to rectify the current climate change situation. In fact, the current, widely  accepted global forecast for the year 2050 includes the eradication of most rivers and even all fish stock due to over-exploited fishing practices. That doesn’t look good for our environment’s future.

According to The New York Times, we can only surmise that things will get worse unless a massive change is made. “Much of the fire-prone American West is expected to become even warmer and drier in coming decades, said Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory,” NY Times writes.

How to put out the wildfires:

With wildfires becoming increasingly frequent, many areas on the West Coast find themselves reevaluating current standard fire management practices. Moving forward, fire management might benefit more from placing more of an emphasis on preventative fire techniques rather than low-intensity fire management tools.

That being said, preventative fire management tools for areas most at risk is not enough. Collectively, the most effective way to put out the wildfires is to stop creating conditions that allow wildfires to start and then flourish. This directly relates back to the human’s role in causing climate change. If we could better manage our own practices so that we could scale back on global warming and climate change, the aftereffects of climate change (such as more frequent, more intense wildfires) would then also scale back.

If, as a society, we can work hard to reduce our impact on the planet – including animal agriculture, deforestation, single-use plastics, fossil fuels, pesticide usage, and greenhouse gas emissions, the intensity and frequency of wildfires (and other natural disasters and extreme weather events) may also become less severe.

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