Wildfires in the West Threaten Whole Country

Wildfires in the West Threaten Whole Country

New data shows that California’s wildfire seasons have become increasingly destructive, both for the state and for the country at large. On Monday, the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory published a study that found that conflagrations in the West can contribute to extreme weather in states across the country. Fires generate enough extreme heat to alter atmospheric pressure, creating strong winds that intensify storms in states like Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

This alarming data follows another recent study from UCLA and the University Chicago that showed that 2020’s record-breaking wildfire season comprised about a third of California’s total greenhouse gas emissions that year. In total, 2020’s wildfires emitted almost twice the total amount of carbon dioxide reductions made since 2003, nullifying these massive cuts.

ABC10: Wildfire in Weed, California, destroys homes; thousands evacuated, September 3, 2022.

ABC: California officials evacuate more than 6,000 people amid Oak Fire, July 23, 2022.

CNBC: California brush fires may be the 'new normal,' May 12, 2022.

Why This Matters

In addition to their environmental risks, wildfires are also huge threats to public health. Last week, Seattle and Oregon had the worst and second-worst air quality in the world due to the Bolt Creek Fire. The air was in fact so bad that Seattle and Portland residents were urged to wear masks and stay indoors.

High exposure to smoky air can affect cognition and children’s test scores, and cause harm to pregnant mothers and their babies. Farm workers, who spend most of their days outside, are particularly susceptible to the health impacts of pollution.

ABC: California has recorded its largest, most destructive wildfires in 5 years, July 25, 2022.

Forbes: Climate Change Could Drive Wildfire Risk Up 50% By End Of Century, UN Warns, February 23, 2022.

MSNBC: Climate Change Is Our Greatest Existential Threat, January 3, 2022.

The Wildfire Feedback Loop

The West’s extreme megadrought has fueled -- literally -- the catastrophic wildfires plaguing the region. The dry foliage and extreme heat that come with drought conditions are a dangerous combination that can make wildfires more likely to spark and spread, even in the winter.

ABC10: California Drought | Dangerous wildfires fueled by historic drought, September 11, 2022.

Guardian: The climate science behind wildfires | Why are they getting worse?, August 20, 2021.

But wildfires are also creating a dangerous feedback loop by threatening already-vulnerable water supplies in the West. The extreme heat created by wildfires at high altitudes can melt winter snowpack that serve as crucial sources of water in the spring and summer.

Given that drought conditions aren’t letting up any time soon, California is taking steps to prepare. The California Department of Insurance is imploring insurers to give discounts to properties that install wildfire safety measures like Class A fire-rated roofs and community evacuation plans.

Reuters: How is climate change driving wildfires?, July 21, 2022.

CAL FIRE TV: California Wildfires | Are You Prepared?, September 14, 2022.

60 Minutes: Taking the fight to the night against California's wildfires with new helicopters, June 26, 2022.

WW0: Dr. Alex Hall & Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali Discuss the California Fires and Climate Change, September 30, 2020.