Record high temperatures and exceptional drought conditions have combusted this summer into what appears to be an exceptionally costly and deadly year for U.S. wildlands. Right now, the Bootleg Fire is raging across more than 150,000 acres in southern Oregon as firefighters battle to protect lives.
Like masks and social distancing, the most effective ways to prepare for this year’s fire season may be the simplest.
As of July, 33,491 fires have burned 1,868,143 acres this year, with 59 large wildfires this week actively burning across 12 states, charring 863,976 acres (an area larger than Great Smoky Mountain National Park). This number is a 10-year national high in wildfires and an ominous start to a year where “fire season,” which peaks in the fall, is just beginning to ramp up in parts of the West. In fact, fire season is becoming a year-round phenomenon in many places.
Already states like Oregon are exceptionally dry, no doubt contributing to the intensity of the Bootleg Fire; 100 percent of the state is abnormally dry, and over 86 percent is experiencing extreme drought conditions, compared to just 47 percent last year. Overall, 58 percent of the U.S. is unusually dry right now.
The dryness and heat turns trees into matches. When heated to over 300° F, their cells break down and release those compounds in gases we know better as “smoke.” Those gases contain hydrocarbons — the same volatile compounds you find in gasoline — and when they get even hotter, they combust.
But something has to be the spark, and that something is usually us. Last year, 91 percent of wildfires were caused by humans, an increase from 83 percent two decades ago. Human-caused fires now burn 3.5 times the amount of land they did two decades ago, tripling the length of the natural fire season. Our campfires, burn piles, target shooting, equipment engines and vehicles can create sparks that go feral, eating through the very forests their igniters meant to cherish.
Alongside the changing environment, which creates more raw material for fires, human behavior has been changing as well in ways that make fires both more common and more dangerous. The shifts in habitation, recreation and other aspects of our lifestyle, due most recently to Covid-19, have intensified the threat of fire.
In 2020, we increasingly used forests and other natural spaces to compensate for the indoor facilities we lost, turning them into playgrounds for families, picnicking spots for gathering with friends, and workout locations in place of gyms. And here’s the thing: We realized that parks are better. Our wild places are not simply an outline on a map; they are a constellation of human interaction, and we aren’t leaving now that more of us have experienced them.
Last year, with socially distanced, domestic outdoor recreation one of the few safe options for vacationing during the pandemic, some 94.5 million households went camping. More than 20 percent of these families headed out and slept under the stars for the first time. And those numbers are expected to rise. In 2021, Yellowstone National Park’s visits are already up 14 percent last month from those pre-pandemic in 2019, with backcountry camping in many parks over 100 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Many people decided to make this embrace of the great outdoors permanent. During the pandemic we’ve moved to warmer places, to be closer to family and to have greater access to nature — largely to the West and the South. Moving, essentially, to the very regions at greatest risk of wildfire, putting more of the population and their housing at risk (you can find your community's risk here).
Furthermore, wildfires don’t stop at the edge of wild places; they leap roadways and enter residential areas. Forty million Americans now live in fire-prone landscapes. Our homes are often built close to nature, with moist forests replaced by dry brush sufficient to lure a hungry fire.
At the same time, humans are fire regulators, for better and worse. We control fire both directly and indirectly by creating the climactic and physical conditions in which fires start. We start fires, herd their paths, and limit their strength. We stop them. We have harnessed their power as farmers, cooks and caretakers who manage ecosystems through controlled burns.
Like masks and social distancing, the most effective ways to prepare for this year’s fire season may be the simplest: Fully extinguish your fires, safely dispose of briquettes after backyard barbeques, don’t drive over dry grasses, be cautious when using lawn equipment to clear dry brush, prepare your home in case of a wildfire, be ready to evacuate in the case of an emergency and support policies that reduce the emissions that are driving this escalation of heat and flame.
Like many natural disasters, the effects of fire also disproportionately affect those who are most vulnerable. So, it’s key that we not only undertake these actions individually, but that we work together to support fire resilience in our communities, especially for low-income families, the disabled and the elderly. As these weeks get hotter, consider checking in more often and helping elderly and disabled neighbors.
2021 may be one of the U.S.’s most costly summers for wildfires, exacting its price in billions of dollars, countless lives and an ecological toll that will endure for decades. Covid-19’s “great escape” has pushed us from the frying pan into the fire. Now that we are here, we need to come together and prioritize managing the flame.