Q&A: Why are wildfires getting worse?

Climate

(NewsNation) — Wildfires have devastated large parts of the country, displacing families and changing the natural landscape.

This week, firefighters have begun to tame the spread of a wildfire near Yosemite National Park, where thousands of residents fled their homes and buildings burned in the dozens.

But fires in Texas and Oklahoma have also ravaged the southwestern part of the nation — representing just a handful of the more than 38,000 wildfires this year alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Of that total, 84 incidents were classified as large fires.

NewsNation spoke with Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, about what fuels these fires and how they impact communities.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NewsNation: It seems like fires are becoming more severe and doing more damage. Is that true and if so, why?

Cook: Yes, there’s a lot of truth to that, but the reasons why are kind of complicated and multifaceted. The western U.S. … historically over the last 100 years, the management of the use of these lands has been one geared towards fire suppression … the problem is, by suppressing those fires, you allow for a lot of vegetation fuel — basically dead biomass — to build up over the landscape over time. Right now, we have this really big fuel surplus across the landscape that’s kind of ready to burn.

In addition, you have a lot more people living in the western United States, including communities that are built into these fire-prone ecosystems. So that means your exposure to fire risk is also increasing over time.

Third … in the natural world, the only real way to start a fire is a lightning strike. But fires start, either intentionally or accidentally, from a spark from a powerline, or sparks from a roadway, things like that.

And then finally, climate change is also playing a role by making things just overall in the West drier.

NewsNation: What kind of environmental impacts and health impacts do wildfires have?

Cook: Certainly the immediate impact of fire for people living in these regions is direct. Oftentimes, they lose their homes and many of their possessions and they’re displaced and forced to evacuate.

More generally, one of the biggest impacts from these large, really intense fires is the smoke and the air pollution…

In some of those recent years, there were periods of time where the San Francisco Bay Area had the worst air quality in the world from these fires.

When these fires happen during heat waves or extreme heat events, much of the West, particularly the Pacific Northwest, many people there don’t have air conditioning because it traditionally, or historically, just has never really gotten that hot for long enough to really justify the expense.

But there again have been recent periods where you’ve had these heat waves at the same time they’ve had these fire events, which means that people wanted to open up their windows but they couldn’t, or it was difficult … because the air quality was so low and they would be letting smoke into the house.

NewsNation: Are there other ways that people are impacted by wildfires that they might not realize?

Cook: One kind of interesting thing for the West especially in California is smoke taint. Obviously, California is a major grape-grower and a major wine producer in the United States … if you have wildfires, and you have a lot of smoke, then the smoke can actually get into the fruit and basically ruin the flavor … there’s a lot of interest and active research right now to figure out ways to deal with smoke taint in those grapes.

I mentioned the interaction with heat extremes before, but another interaction with extremes is heavy precipitation … You’ve seen this happen in California where a fire will come through during the dry season and burn out the vegetation. In the winter you’ll get a big precipitation event and this will drive a major landslide because the fire’s removed the vegetation, that heavy precipitation has come, nothing’s holding the soil together, and then everything kind of just slips off.

NewsNation: When you talk about all this vegetation that now is just sitting, ready to be fuel for another fire — is there anything we can do moving forward to better prevent those fires from happening?

Cook: This is one of the big challenges right now — how to deal with this more fire-prone system in the western U.S. in a more proactive rather than reactive way. Certainly, organizations like the fire service are doing prescribed burns, which are designed to basically run a controlled fire so that you can try to prevent some big fire from taking off later.

In addition, there’s a lot of discussion about Indigenous fire management and thinking about how the people who were originally here before Europeans arrived kind of managed these landscapes … Thinking about some of those practices and incorporating them into fire management plans is part of the discussion, as well.

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