In the past few years, several devastating fires have caught media attention worldwide, including the 2018 Camp Fire and Mendocino Complex of California, the 2019 Amazon Fires and more recently the Australian Bushfires. While forest fires are important to the growth and reproduction of tree species as well nutrient replenishment of the soil, recent fires spread faster and wider than in years past.
The problem will only get worse. Here’s why.
Smokey the Bear was part of the problem.
After the formation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, heavy emphasis was placed on the prevention of wildfires. During WWII, the U.S. War Advertising Council and the Forest Service created an ad campaign to raise awareness of the threats of forest fires. In 1944, Smokey made his debut pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. Three years later, he gained his well known tagline, “Only YOU…can prevent forest fires”.
The Forest Service’s control of fires allowed for the unchecked growth of trees, grasses, and shrubs in the Southwestern U.S. Smokey had made the idea that fires are bad unquestionable to the public. Restricting fires had actually allowed them to burn faster and wider by contributing more material for fuel, and drier conditions meant that a lightning strike or even a spark could start a catastrophic fire.
In 2001, Smokey’s motto changed to: “Only you can prevent wildfires”. After the government realized that some fires were helpful to forest communities, they began using controlled burns to prevent more unpredictable fires. Still, fires worldwide are being fueled by other factors – like climate change.
Wildfires happen – but not like this.
In the midst of the fires, celebrities, companies and instagram activists have called upon people worldwide to donate to organizations like the Australian Red Cross Society, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, or various firefighting operations. The common theme tends to be that donations will solve the current issue. The problem: the issue won’t stop when these fires go out.
While donations and the volunteer efforts of firefighters, first responders, and animal care facilities is of the upmost importance, this fire isn’t the first or last to leave catastrophic damage on its ecosystems and communities. Why?
Many scientists are pointing to climate change as a culprit. Since 1880, temperatures have increased on average 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit globally. Two-thirds of this increase have occurred since 1975, according to NASA. Interestingly, wildfires burning in the western U.S. today are about 10 times as large as in the 1970s, and fires larger than 1,000 acres are about 5 times as common.
How does climate change correlate to more destructive wildfires?
Over the past 30 years, rising temperatures have doubled the area of the western U.S. affected by wildfires, according to a 2016 study. This isn’t just a phenomena in North America.
The rise in global temperatures due to increased greenhouse gas emissions has led to hotter springs and summers, as well as an earlier onset of warmer weather. This has several cascading effects:
- The soil in these regions dries out earlier in the year.
- Insects that thrive in warmer weather infest trees, killing and turning them into kindling for fire.
Climate change also affects weather patterns and can create droughts which increase risk of wildfires. In some areas of Australia, there were severe rainfall deficiencies lasting from January 2017 to August 2019.
Fires contribute to global warming.
The input of greenhouse gases can create changes in ecosystems that make fires more likely. Once a wildfire has already started, it too contributes to future fires.
By December 24, 2019, the Australian Bushfires had already released half of Australia’s annual carbon dioxide emissions (306 million tons). Worldwide, wildfires that burned within the first 11 months of 2019 released around 6.38 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Not only are fires huge contributors to emissions, but also to particulates, carbon monoxide, and pollutants which can travel on air currents.
While not only harmful to air quality in the short term, these emissions can create a positive feedback loop where climate change is accelerated and more fires begin, releasing even further emissions. This trend can’t be isolated to only fires, however. Sea ice melt, desertification, storm intensity, and detriment to agricultural systems will all need to be considered, especially in future political and corporate policy making.
Australian Bushfires: 2019 – Ongoing
- 25 human lives lost
- Upwards of a billion animals killed
- 20 million acres burned
Amazon Fires (2019):
- Set intentionally to expand cattle ranching operations and farms
- Reliable figures for 2019 insufficient, but burning rate increased 84% in one year
Camp Fire (Nov 8, 2018 – Nov 25, 2018):
- 85 lives lost
- 153,000+ acres burned
- Most deadly fire in 100 years in U.S.
- Most expensive natural disaster worldwide in 2018
Mendocino Complex (July 27, 2018 – Nov 7, 2018):
- Largest California wildfire in recorded history
- 350,000+ acres burned
- 5 dead
What we can do right now – who to donate to (Australian Bushfires):
Firefighters and First Aid:
- Country Fire Authority
- NSW Rural Fire Service (amongst other fire services around the country!!)
- Red Cross AU
- Salvation Army AU
- St Vincent du Paul Society
- Koalas – Koala Hospital NSW
- RSPCA Australia – aids in both native animals and livestock
- WIRES Animal Rescue Inc.
- Australian Zoo Wildlife Warriors – Steve Irwin
Note: Recent reports have led the public to believe arson is the sole cause of these dangerous and devastating fires. 9/10 wildfires worldwide are set by humans, either accidentally or purposely. Initial fires have the ability to light new fires and create their own weather patterns. Arson can’t be blamed for the Australian emergency. This article seeks to point out the increased destruction caused by fires on average due to fire control and climate change induced conditions.
Featured image: AFP/Saeed Khan
More on: The Smokey Effect – NPR
Charities: PBS – Bushfires