West Coast Wildfire Effects Felt in WI
By Brigid Mullen
The West Coast is currently experiencing the worst wildfire season in recorded history. Over four million acres in California have burned, at least 35 people have died with many others currently missing, countless homes have been destroyed and communities evacuated and displaced.
The toxic air pollution caused by these fires combined with the airborne Coronavirus has created a perfect storm of unbreathable air across the West Coast these past few months.
The fires raging across the coast today are the biggest the world has ever seen. For example, the August Complex Fire, started by a lightning storm, alone burned nearly 740 square miles, making it the largest fire in California history. Washington, Oregon, and California fire departments have all been stretched extremely thin, and numerous other states (including Wisconsin) have sent in firefighters to help these departments.
These fires may seem far away, but even if they’re happening across the country, their consequences can still be felt here in Madison. The toxic smoke from these fires has covered the country in unprecedented quantities, and can cause serious damage. Did you notice the hazy skies, the blurry sun of a few weeks ago? These are mild effects for now. “In some cases if the smoke reaches ground level we could have decreased air quality which would be problematic for anyone with a respiratory illness such as asthma or emphysema,” stated James Reichling, a science teacher at La Follette High School. In mid-September, it was confirmed that smoke from these wildfires had traveled all the way to the other side of the US, with effects even being felt on the East Coast.
Climate change is often cited as a cause of these intense wildfires, which have been getting increasingly worse over the past couple of years. “First, warmer temperatures, especially early in the spring, cause soil and vegetation to dry out earlier which allows the fire season to start earlier,” Mr. Reichling continued. “Second, warmer temperatures at various times of year are allowing insect populations to thrive, insects like pine bark beetles that can kill large amounts of trees. The dead trees left behind after these insect kills are prime material to cause fire outbreaks. Further, changing weather patterns seem to be leading to more prolonged droughts, which also increase the amount of dry and dead forest material that can burn in a wildfire. Finally, ...increased temperatures also provide the energy for windier conditions that can both dry out soil and vegetation faster and drive fires faster and further once they are started.”
As the country looks to an uncertain future, amidst a pandemic and turbulent election year, we can only hope some change is brought about soon to reverse the deadly effects of climate change before it’s too late.