The West Coast Is Burning: Why?

Assessing the causes and impacts of the U.S. West Coast’s recent wave of devastating wildfires.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Cindy Yang

Since June, residents in the Western United States have been startled by blazing red skies. States including California, Oregon, and Washington are currently experiencing one of their worst wildfire seasons yet. In California alone, over two million acres of land have burned this year, breaking all of the previous year’s records.

Wildfires can begin either naturally or be caused by humans. Humans cause as much as 90 percent of wildfires through unattended campfires, arson, and discarded cigarettes. Naturally occurring wildfires start in dry environments with strong winds. Conditions like these can result in vegetation drying out into flammable fuels or the promotion of combustion due to higher temperatures. At that point, all that’s needed is some kind of trigger to ignite the fire, which could be as minor as an unattended campfire or discarded cigarette.

Dozens of theories have been bounced around to explain the source of this year’s surge of fires, but global warming emerges as one of the most important. Climate change has been an issue for as long as we can remember, but its effects are now readily apparent in the Western U.S. Though climate change doesn’t directly ignite fires, it makes for a warm, dry environment that’s more prone to starting naturally occurring wildfires. California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah have all had their driest and hottest August this past year. Unsurprisingly, they are also some of the states that have been hit the hardest this wildfire season.

Since the late 1900s, the Western U.S. has warmed up by three degrees Fahrenheit. These rising temperatures accelerate moisture evaporation at a rate that the slowly increasing atmospheric moisture cannot compete with. This has resulted in an inadequate amount of moisture and thus has increased the rate at which plants dry out. This dryness makes the vegetation extremely susceptible to burning into a large-scale wildfire. In a study by American Geophysical Union, a direct connection has been found between higher moisture deficits and increasing summer fires from the years 1972 to 2018.

The frequent and intense wildfire seasons in the American West brought on and exacerbated by both climate change and ignorant forestry practices have had profound effects on the immediate environment and daily lives of local inhabitants.

First, for firefighters at the front lines, their ranks have already been reduced by the social distancing restrictions put in place in response to the ongoing pandemic. Those trying to curb the fires are subject to increasingly dangerous conditions. Typically, firefighters aim to starve the fires by using tools like adzes and chainsaws to remove potential fuel, such as low branches and dry vegetation. In stark contrast to the fires that have been burning hotter and more rapidly in recent decades, these firefighting techniques have changed relatively little. The strenuous, hands-on nature of their job puts the firefighters at unnecessary risk—a risk many of them must unfortunately take to earn a living and support their families. Furthermore, the U.S. Forest Service has spent over $2.6 billion on suppressing fires in 2018 alone, not to mention the money needed to repair the thousands of structures destroyed.

Additionally, the smoke from ongoing and past wildfires is a mixture of gases like carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter from burning trees and buildings. Prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke is linked to serious health issues, including respiratory problems, heart attacks, and strokes. In the developing lungs of babies, the health implications of inhaling smoke may be lifelong and irreversible. Wildfire smoke and subsequent smoke plumes reach all the way to the East Coast and the Atlantic Ocean. Air quality is at its worst in decades, and at this rate, it will only continue getting worse each year, affecting the lives of more and more Americans.

Moreover, with many households being destroyed by the wildfires, especially those near susceptible vegetation, insurers are becoming increasingly financially strained. And with California now laying out rules to make insurance more affordable in fire-prone areas, insurers are considering ceasing their services to those areas and other areas that may succumb to wildfires in the near future. This further compounds the risk that families living in these areas have of losing everything.

The situation in the Western U.S. is looking grimmer than ever. Strong efforts to advocate for measures like cost-efficient firefighting strategies to offset inevitable expenditures and distancing firefighters from dangers are crucial. It goes without saying that something needs to be done to interrupt what seems like the wildfires’ free reign over the region’s environment and inhabitants each coming year.