Here are the crucial facts about wildfires in the United States, Canada, and China: they are burning bigger, hotter, more frequently. They are also destroying more property and killing more people than ever before.
The reasons why are simple…as simple as the recipe for a wildfire. Wildfires start with hot, dry weather and the presence of fuel, dry ignitable trees and underbrush.
“Drought parched California for years, leaving it littered with fuel in the form of dry vegetation, wrote Julie Turkewitz in the NY Times as wildfires swept across the wine country of northern California. “Then the winter of 2016 and the spring of 2017 brought record amounts of rainfall, which spurred new plant growth. That was followed by months of extreme heat that withered the new growth and turned it into more tinder.”
Tinder wants an igniter. Often in wildfires that trigger is lightning, but according to PGE, the California utility company, it was another force of nature, high Diablo winds that combined with today’s leading cause of forest fires, the hand of man.
“Hurricane-force … winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay.”
84% of forest fires in the United States are caused by human agency, whether it be from a sparking powerline, or a hot-running ATV, or a careless campfire or cigarette.
The role of global warming in creating this world of bigger, hotter, faster-spreading, more frequent wildfires is well-established. And even those who still dispute that climate change is man-made have admit, the rising costs of wildfires is definitely due to human agency. Not just because of man’s triggering effects because of man’s increasing presence in forested areas. More people living or recreating in forested areas means more people killed by fires, and their homes, stores, hotels and even towns and cities pushed into woodlands is radically increasing the bill for property damage.
The flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in East Texas caused – for a brief moment – a debate about public policies…subsidized flood insurance… housing and industrial development in flood-plain areas. Were people being encouraged to take needless risks that taxpayers were paying for? And if so, what should government be doing to change the equation?
The devastating fire in 2016 that hit Fort McMurray, Alberta…and the 2017 fires that ate great swaths of the city of Santa Rosa, California should start a similar reassessment of public policies toward the interactions of people and forest areas.
Edward Struzik has been writing about scientific and environmental issues for more than 30 years. A fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, his numerous accolades include the prestigious Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy and the Sir Sandford Fleming Medal, awarded for outstanding contributions to the understanding of science. In 1996 he was awarded the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and spent a year at Harvard and MIT researching environment, evolutionary biology, and politics with E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. His 2015 book, Future Arctic, focuses on the effects of climate change in the Canadian Arctic and the impacts they will have on rest of the world. His other books include Arctic Icons, The Big Thaw, and Northwest Passage.is He is an active speaker and lecturer, and his work as a regular contributor to Yale Environment 360 covers topics such as the effects of climate change and fossil fuel extraction on northern ecosystems and their inhabitants. He is on the Board of Directors for the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, a citizens’ organization dedicated to the long-term environmental and social well-being of northern Canada and its peoples. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta.