Well-thought out controlled burns, that are intentionally started to meet specific land management objectives, can be incredibly beneficial if they are well managed by trained professionals. They are a natural part of our ecosystem and play an important role in preventing wildfires by burning the extra dried up vegetation so it doesn’t act like fuel. These practices ended in the early 20th century, however since 1995 the US Forest Service is slowly incorporating them back into their forest management policies. For the purpose of the story I have written, I chose to focus on the effects of climate change on wildfires and in addition, the effects wildfires are having on climate change.
Wildfires already - April 26th 2021
As I stepped outside to bring our dog for his usual walk one morning last week, I was excited to see the sun. The previous couple of days had been beautiful and it was going to be another glorious day, reaching the mid -70’s. But something felt off. Surely there wasn’t smoke in the air? It was only the middle of April and since moving to Seattle in 2013, the forest fires that I’ve experienced effects from were usually closer to the summer months. When I learned, a couple of days later, that there was an early start to Washington’s wildfire season and that in one week, the State Department of Natural Resources had already responded to 91 fires, I was shocked. Reading that the hot, dry conditions were going to dry the landscape out even longer and it’s likely we will have another potentially devastating fire season ahead of us, it saddened me. I couldn’t help thinking about the damaging effects these wildfires have already caused and will continue to do to the earth - to our natural environment, to innocent species, to homes and the people who live in the affected areas, as climate change continues. While most fires, though not always intentional, are from human activities such as campfires or throwing away a lit cigarette, climate change does play a role. As our planet continues to warm up, it’s drying out the soil, making forests drier in general and vegetation more susceptible to burning and igniting quickly, creating what people are referring to as “tinderbox conditions”. Throw in windy conditions and it quickly becomes even more of a breeding ground for wildfires to spread.
As I sat by the side of our house that week, situated next to a beautiful forested area with a winding trail that we regularly take our dog for walks on, I thought about the increase in wildfire activity across the globe. All it seems to take is a spark from a lightning strike or a campfire that is being poorly tended for a fire to quickly ignite and become out of control. Listening to the birds and taking in the beauty of the nature surrounding me, I shuddered to think of how easily it could happen on our door step and of the devastation it would cause to the home of the rabbits, squirrels and the occasional deer we get such joy from seeing outside our window. During a fire, birds can generally fly away and small creatures can burrow in to the ground or hide under rocks but the intensity of today’s wildfires is apparently making it more difficult for even fire-adapted species to cope. The more mobile animals generally have some ability to escape from the fires by fleeing but with their habitat shrinking due to human expansion, they have fewer places to go now. The animals that are most at risk are the young and smaller ones, the elderly and those that can’t run fast enough or find shelter.
My dog accompanied me as I moved to sit on the grass and in a moment of empathy, as if someone had just told me their feelings had been hurt, placed my hand on the earth and expressed my sorrow for what is happening to her. (I use “her” in reference to “Mother Earth” as she is otherwise known). My dog watched me with quiet intrigue. This is not something I would normally do, but in the few weeks that I have been on this journey to learn more about climate change, it has given me a whole new outlook, understanding and awe for what the earth has always done and is still desperately trying to do for us. Sadly, as the years go by and our carbon emissions continue to create rising temperatures, it’s becoming increasingly challenging for her. If she is not getting the love, respect and help she needs from us to stay balanced and healthy, how is she going to provide us with what we need to thrive?
It can be easy to forget how much we all depend on the earth for different ecosystem services and resources, including air, water, energy, plants, soil, minerals and animals. I admit that I have often taken much of this for granted myself, forgetting that we also have a role to play and that our relationship with nature is a symbiotic one. Just as the earth looks after us, it’s also up to us to look after her. I’m sure many of us forget just how much we depend on forests for our survival. How the trees provide us with the air we breathe, how they provide the animal habitats and the fruits, nuts and plants for them to flourish. Not to forget, the important role the animals have in spreading the seeds of the plants they have eaten, to help fertilize the soil so that we can also grow our food in it. When you remember the purpose that every part of nature has to play in our lives and the devastating effects climate change is having on these roles, it brings home in a bigger way, the reality and enormous importance of protecting our environment.
Sadly, it can take years for the damage done to the environment, to biodiversity and to wildlife to recover from wildfires. The trees that normally pull carbon out of the air can take decades to grow back. Instead, the burning and dead trees release carbon in to the air along with additional greenhouse gases and particulate matter from the flames. Together they contribute to increasing the atmospheres carbon emissions which in turn, contribute to the earth’s rising temperatures. The trees that do manage to survive are left more susceptible to disease. The quality of rivers, streams and lakes are affected as well as the food source and homes of many animals. Buildings and homes can also be destroyed, exposing hazardous materials that can become an additional threat to human health and first responders involved in cleanup and recover activities.
Thinking about the prospect of another summer of wildfires, it brought me back to August of 2018, when we had been surrounded on three sides by wildfire smoke - from fires in British Columbia, in Central and Eastern Washington and raging ongoing fires in Northern California. During this period, Seattle was deemed as having the worst air quality in the world with an air quality index of 190 which is apparently, the equivalent of smoking roughly 7 cigarettes a day. Ash fell like snow as it wafted across Seattle from all directions. Visibility was low and on days where sun had been forecast, it was impossible to see it through the haze, let alone the mountains or water. Officials recommended that everyone stay indoors with windows shut to avoid any damaging effects, setting air conditioners to "recirculation" (to avoid the outside air) and limit physical activity. When I think of these devastating fires and others that have occurred, in California and other parts of the world such as Australia and the Amazon, I can’t imagine the horrific effects the species and people there have had to endure. Not to mention, the damaging effects of the smoke. With lightning strikes and wildfires set to increase as our planet warms up, as well as snow melt, a trend that’s also occurring across the western U.S., the sooner we all commit to reducing our carbon footprint the better. It’s imperative that we work to reduce these rising temperatures and “tinderbox conditions”.
Perhaps we can also learn from how most Native American tribes view the earth as sacred and thank her every day for all that she does, just like they do, because she deserves it. It may even help us think about her that bit more and remember the role that we have to play to support her. It's not too late, we have the ability to slow down this crisis. What if we can come up with ways to help reduce our carbon footprint that are enjoyable? If we can come up with ideas that make us happy, such as teaching your kids about what they can do to help the earth or walking to work, if possible, so that it helps you feel fitter and more mentally alert - whatever it is that you can do to help is a contribution to slowing down climate change. What happens next is up to us. Without our help, the earth will not only continue to struggle to support herself, she will continue to struggle to support us.
You can find some ways to reduce your carbon footprint here.
Additional ways to help the earth can be found here.