As the western United States experiences wildfire after wildfire, it seems that there is an endless stream of news about the latest blaze ravaging one community or another. Over the last couple decades, wildfires have been growing in size and frequency largely due to climate change. In fact, in recent years it seems that wildfires have become a sort of poster child for the climate movement.
Wildfires: Natural and Beneficial
Despite the fear factor that comes along with the topic of wildfires, they are a completely natural and beneficial phenomenon. In fact, they are essential to the thriving of many plant species and ecosystems. They often start naturally, with as little as one strike of lighting, and occur all over the world in a variety of biomes. Wildfire flames provide a number of services to the forest, including killing harmful insects and diseases and clearing underbrush, which allows for more plants to cultivate and more sunlight to reach the forest floor.
Fear of Wildfires
So, if wildfires are so beneficial to forest ecosystems, why are we fearful of them? The simple answer is that wildfires are devastating to communities. In 2018, the Camp Fire in Butte County, Calif. burnt nearly the entire town of Paradise to the ground, killing 86 people. While this is an extreme case scenario, there have been — and will continue to be — many instances where people lose property and loved ones to wildfires.
Wildfires are also dangerous to long-term health. The smoke emitted by a wildfire can cause extended periods of low air quality in nearby areas, leading to respiratory illness. Moreover, the threat of wildfires can lead to high levels of stress surrounding evacuation orders, property loss and death. Chronic stress can cause serious health concerns, ranging from sleep disorders to heart disease.
Additionally, there are significant fiscal implications of wildfires. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, since 2000 there have been 15 forest fires in the US that have cost $1 billion in damages each. In 2017 and 2018, wildfires were estimated by the NOAA to have cost over $40 billion.
The prevalence and severity of wildfires is directly linked to climate change. Wildfires are influenced most significantly by three factors: temperature, soil moisture and the presence of potential fuel, such as dried out trees and shrubs. As the average global temperature rises, we are seeing warmer and shorter winter months with less precipitation, leading to dryer conditions throughout the year and longer drought seasons. In turn, wildfires are becoming more of an issue. In 2020, five out of six of the largest wildfires on record occurred in California.
Wildfires, while often caused by climate change, are major contributors to the issue itself. A large wildfire releases staggering amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Under regular circumstances, the new plant life colonized in the aftermath of a wildfire would absorb this carbon, neutralizing the effects of the fire. However, the frequency and intensity of wildfires in recent years have not allowed new life to reach maturity at the speed required to keep up with the amount of carbon from new fires. We are caught in a dangerous cycle — carbon emissions cause global rises in temperature, leading to an increase in wildfires, leading to higher carbon emissions.
What To Do
This is a large and complex issue, as are all facets of climate change. While seemingly grim, our future is not hopeless. In his documentary “A Life on Our Planet,” David Attenborough proposes a solution to climate change: stabilizing the population by raising quality of life. As nations develop, people have more opportunities and therefore less children. If we can raise people out of poverty, provide access to healthcare and encourage education — specifically among girls — the population will hit its first-ever peak and plateau.
The question then becomes, “How do we provide these services for people without increasing our environmental impact?” The simple answer is: renewable energy, or as Attenborough puts it, “Run our world on the eternal energies of nature.” In 2000, Morocco relied almost entirely on imported oil and gas for energy. Today, they produce 40% of their own energy from renewable power plants, including the world’s largest solar farm. It is time for the rest of the world to follow suit.