Forest fires can occur naturally, but humans are responsible for around 80 percent of them. They can start with a dropped cigarette, out-of-control campfire, lightning strike or other heat source. Winds and dry vegetation then cause them to spread.
Wildfires are uncontrolled and move quickly, destroying everything in their path. In an average year, about 100,000 of them clear between 4 and 5 million acres in the United States.
A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the number of weeks the U.S. is at risk of large fires, known as the fire season, could increase significantly in the coming years. In the northern Rockies, the timeframe could expand by up to 600 percent by 2041 to 2070. In the West, the numbers could increase by between 200 and 500 percent.
The reason for this? Climate change caused by increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Effects of Forest Fires
Occasional forest fires can be healthy for an ecosystem, but at the rate they’re happening today, they could cause significant problems for the environment. They also cause problems for people who live and work in and around forests.
In the UK in 2011, fire crews responded to more than 1,000 gorse and forestry fires over four days. And this year in Portugal, 62 people died and 54 were injured as a result of forest fires.
Forest fires also kill animals and destroy their habitat, forcing the ones that survive out of their homes. The fire itself and the water used to put it out can also cause long-term damage to the soil, such as erosion.
Additionally, fires release large amounts of air pollution that threaten the health of the environment and of people.
How Climate Change Impacts Forest Fires
As climate change worsens, the frequency, duration and intensity of forest fires are expected to increase.
Rising global temperatures are causing snow to melt sooner and heat to set in earlier in the year, resulting in drier conditions and longer fire seasons. This dryness may be accelerated by less precipitation in some areas. Higher levels of insect infestation may worsen it in others, since insects that damage vegetation often thrive in warmer climates. Dry forests allow fires to spread faster.
Wildfires aren’t the only extreme weather events that might increase. Some parts of the country may see more storms and lightning as well, which may spark fires, especially when vegetation is dry.
The burn areas in 11 western U.S. states, including Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, may double if average summer temperatures increase by 2.9 degrees. As more trees burn, less will be available to remove carbon and other substances from the air and replace it with oxygen. This will, in turn, make climate change worse, creating a vicious cycle.
What Can We Do?
Governments are attempting to find the best way to fund fighting forest fires. However, funding firefighting is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It doesn’t address the root cause of the fires, which is climate change. Fixing that, of course, presents a formidable challenge.
Decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions by using fewer fossil fuels, conserving resources and protecting natural ecosystems may eventually slow the impacts of global warming, as long as widespread change occurs.
For now though, take extra care when dealing with fire outdoors. Always keep fires contained and watch for fire bans in your area. Remember to keep your fire at least 10 to 20 feet away from any structure. Never leave campfires or burning trash unattended, and dispose of cigarettes in safe places, making sure they’re out before getting rid of them.
Forest fires are just one effect of our changing climate, which we must address while also trying to tackle the cause of the problem.
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