Last year dozens of wildfires raged across the world, in places like the United States, Canada, and Greece. Most frequently, we can look to the wildfires that happened in Northern California in 2018, which forced hundreds-of-thousands of people to evacuate, scorched thousands of structures, and displaced many animals.
For a wildfire to burn there needs to be fuel, oxygen, and a heat source present, this is also known as the Fire Triangle. Any flammable material that may be surrounding the fire would be a fuel source, like trees or homes. The more fuel surrounding the fire will inherently create a bigger one. The oxygen component of the Fire Triangle is supplied by the air around us, while a heat source can come from the following:
Unsurprisingly, 3-out-of-5 wildfires are created but humans. We supply the heat source to ignite the fire, then global warming helps determine the severity of that fire.
As the earth warms, the world’s water and cloud cycles are being altered. For every 1 degree that the world’s temperature goes up, the atmosphere is sucking up 7% more precipitation from the ground. This lack of moisture makes conditions dry and drought more frequent, which leads to leaching in the soil. This also makes forests more susceptible to burning and combustion. Mix this in with strong, uncontrollable winds and all you need is a tiny amount of fuel for a wildfire to take place.
The clearest impact of wildfires is the destructions of homes and other human-made structures. People are also faced with poor air quality during and in the aftermath of the fire. This can have a huge negative impact on people’s health, particularly those with heart or lung disease, older adults, children, and teens. In the worst-cases, wildfires can and have taken lives.
Scientist’s don’t have a good estimate of how many animals die in wildfires each year. Although, we do know what animals are most affected by fires, which are small and young ones. This is because these animals usually have a harder time finding shelter and escaping the wildfire quick enough.
In contrast, larger animals, like bears and deer, have the best chance of finding safe grounds. Birds can also fly away, but they do risk leaving behind nests and young ones. Amphibians or other small animals, that burrow underground to take cover, have a high risk of death as well. Temperatures have been measured as high as 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit beneath burning logs, and 212 degrees Fahrenheit 2-inches below the surface.
Not only are ecosystems left in ruins, but so are the food chains that those animals depended on. Wildfires can overall leave animals burned, dehydrated, malnourished, and displaced. As a result, animals travel to distant ecosystems in search of food and shelter. This leads to added stress on the wildlife that already lives in these distant ecosystems, who have to further compete for food, water, and shelter.
Naturally occurring wildfires, though destructive, play a structural role in nature. As they can;
The turnaround time between wildfires is shortening, while the severity is increasing. Our unsustainable, carbon-fueled economy is helping to accelerate weather condition at a rate that is exceedingly hard for animals to adapt to, along with humans. To put this into perspective, since the 1970s, the United States wildfire season has grown from a 5-month to 7-month period. On average, the U.S. has 100,000 wildfires, which can clear 4-5-million acres of land per year. This is beyond naturally occurring wildfires, but there is a silver lining. Since 3-out-of-5 wildfires are human-made, we can stop them and protect our families and ecosystems alike.
If there is one take away, remember extreme weather doesn’t have to be our new normal.