The American West is burning faster than in the past decade. New Mexico has been battling two of the largest wildfires on record for more than a month. This year, about 3 million acres of land in the United States have already burned – almost the size of Connecticut. And given that summer will start tomorrow, and the heat has already begun, the heat is likely to worsen.
Environmentalists and foresters say climate change has created a disturbing reality: wildfire seasons have turned into wildfire years that start earlier in the spring and sometimes continue into the following winter.
Consider the number of forest fires that have occurred from January to mid-June over the past 10 years:
These fires also became more severe. California has seen two of the biggest fires in the past two years: the Dixie fire in 2021 burned nearly a million acres, and the August 2020 complex fire topped a million acres.
More frequent and intense fires are dangerous. They give off smoke that can damage the lungs of people living hundreds or even thousands of miles away. They burn homes, crops, and even centuries-old crops, causing tens of billions of dollars of economic damage.
Today’s fact sheet will explain why these large fires have become so widespread and what experts say needs to be done to reverse the trend.
How did we get here
Wildfires have burned the West for thousands of years, but they have become much more dangerous due to human activities.
Humans cause the vast majority of wildfires (about 96 percent this year), and humans have also gone to great lengths to put them out, only to set the table for more fires. Paul Hessberg, a US Forest Service ecologist, explained that the nation’s well-intentioned firefighting strategy over the past century has led to an unnatural accumulation of materials that act as kindling for wildfires: branches, grass, shrubs, trees, and even houses. .
Humans have also spent decades releasing planet-warming gases into the atmosphere, rapidly warming the climate, and helping wildfires get hotter, stronger, and faster.
Fires at the start of the year are becoming more frequent as the American West has dried up and temperatures have risen. Winters are warmer, save less from the heat.
On the mountaintops, winter snow, which can slow wildfires by moistening forest wood, began to melt earlier and faster in the spring. Strong winds dried out the kindling even more and accelerated the spread of forest fires.
Years of warming, drought and high winds in the West have worked in tandem with the accumulation of woodfuel to “set the dinner table for the situation we’re in right now,” Hessburg said.
what is being done
Early removal of the fuel source for a wildfire is the main way to prevent or reduce its impact, experts say. One option is to thin the forests manually with saws, rakes and bulldozers. Others are prescribed fires, which are deliberately set to burn dry shrubs and small trees at a much lower intensity.
These two methods can also be combined, but both require planning and technical know-how. Manual thinning can be slow and labor intensive. The prescribed burns must take place under the right weather conditions and fuel (which is becoming rarer due to climate change) to limit the risk of an uncontrolled burn.
And there are problems with public trust. Locals who fear the smoky air are fighting more prescribed burning. And sometimes, as happened in New Mexico this spring, erratic winds can lead to an established fire beyond the control of firefighters.
Experts agree that the fight against forest fires should be much more active. They offer a number of ideas: loosening restrictions on prescribed burnings, increasing prescribed burnings, or even allowing wildfires to burn for a while when they do not threaten lives or livelihoods.
Experts acknowledge that their proposals should overcome residents’ fears and political challenges. But they warn that if nothing is done and landscapes full of trees, leaves and bushes are left untreated, wildfires will only get worse.
War in Ukraine
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And here is Eric’s selection of 12 exceptional rose varieties ranging from $13 to $35. — Natasha Frost, Briefing Writer
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