Fighting Wildfires in 2020

Isabel Smith, Copy Editor

A few weeks ago, every resident of Issaquah woke up, glanced outside, and had their breath catch—both figuratively and literally. For nearly a week, our area was covered in a cloud of thick, impenetrable smoke that turned the sky an unnatural, lifeless orange and filtered the sun’s rays through red. Any little venture outside resulted in coughing fits and a pungent burning smell was unmistakable even through masks. As senior Andrew Schmidt describes, “The West Coast fires were one of, if not the worst, it’s been in Washington that I can remember. The air quality in the area was the worst air quality in the world at that time.” The effects of the fires we have experienced firsthand on the West Coast were devastating, but all across the world, in 2020 alone, similar and even more destructive fires have raged. The fire seasons this year have yielded some of the most extreme wildfires in the past decade, which begs the question of how exactly the magnitude of these fires has increased and what factors were fuelling it.

Some of the most prominent wildfires that have occurred in 2020 are the Australian fires, primarily concentrated in New South Wales, the West Coast fires in the United States, and the fires near the Paraná Delta in northern Argentina. Australia’s bushland fires alone were estimated to have burnt through around 18.6 million hectares of land, and in total, all three fires managed to destroy approximately 22.8 million hectares of wilderness as well as rural and suburban communities. In the Paraná Delta, over 25,000 individual outbreaks of wildfires were recorded, and major cities like Canberra and Sydney in Australia, San Francisco in California, and Rosario in Argentina have been threatened by the wildfires as they rage uncomfortably close to these populous urban centers.

The presence of wildfires themselves is no shock to these areas. Wildfires are a natural and vital part of the Earth’s ecosystems, and Australia and California are certainly not strangers to the fact that their dry summers are almost synonymous with “wildfire season,” but it is also undeniable to scientists, firefighters, and the general population that the wildfires the world has been experiencing these past few years have been anything but routine. In early September, CBS News reported that “an estimated 330,000 acres burned across [Washington state] in a single day, more than the total in each of the last 12 fire seasons” and that “California has seen a record 3.3 million acres burn so far this year—roughly 5 times the normal for an entire season, and 10 times the normal year to date.” Data trends show that, over time, the magnitude of wildfires has accelerated dramatically. On the West Coast, wildfire season is now two to three months longer than it was a few decades ago, and seventeen of California’s largest wildfires have occurred in the last twenty years.

There is no doubt that the wildfires seen worldwide have shocked the general public and put a strain on firefighters and government officials, but with a multitude of factors contributing to the tragedies these fires have caused, they almost seem inevitable. The first and perhaps most significant factor contributing to the abhorred fires in 2020 is climate change. Junior Anika Kumar said, “I wouldn’t discount climate change as a fueling factor for these fires. I know already that climate change is creating a lot of environmental imbalances and I think that may have had a hand in the fires,” and the science agrees with her. No, climate change did not start these fires—wildfires are started either by natural means like lightning strikes or human carelessness like a cigarette left to smolder in the woods—but the environmental imbalances caused by climate change have significantly increased the destructive power of wildfires. For instance, it is no coincidence that this year California, Australia, and northern Argentina have been subject to some of the worst drought conditions in years and that the West Coast of the United States experienced a record-breaking heatwave at the time of the fires. In Argentina, the Buenos Aires Times reported that “the Paraná River [is] at its lowest level in more than 60 years,” which has allowed fires to spread between islands in the delta and made them harder to control. In California, according to CBS News, “In mid-August the West suffered through an extended heat wave which saw Death Valley surge to 130 degrees, the hottest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth” and “over Labor Day weekend California experienced an even more intense heat wave, with the southern part of the state hitting 121 degrees west of the mountains for the first time in record-keeping history.” These spikes in heat, rather predictably, allowed fire-starters such as lightning strikes to develop into raging forest fires and continued to fuel the power of these fires throughout the season.

Increased intensity in heatwaves and decreased rainfall is not all that climate change has inflicted on the Earth. Another effect of climate change is the moisture deficit, the idea that the increase in the Earth’s average temperature has increased the evaporation of moisture from its surface and accelerated the drying-out of foliage. A recent study co-authored by Dr. John Abatzoglou, a climate professor at the University of California Merced, has found a direct link between the increase in summer forest-fire area within the years 1972 and 2018 and the moisture deficit. Not to mention, at the peak of the fires, the deficit was at record low levels in the majority of the Western United States.

Overall, climate change itself does not cause heat waves or fires, but it certainly creates the perfect conditions for wildfires to burn as fiercely as they can. However, climate change cannot be blamed for all the issues faced when fighting wildfires in 2020. Another contributor to these fires has been human carelessness and human development in burn hotspots. It is no secret that human activities are much more prone to accidently igniting wildfires than natural means are. For example, freshman Warren Huang and Kumar both vividly recalled a California family’s gender reveal party being the origin of one of the West Coast fires and sophomore Isabella Versoza admitted, “I think our carelessness of the environment has made these wildfires worse.” The development of rural and suburban communities in areas that are historically inclined to experiencing fires has amplified the risk of small uses of flammables developing into raging wildfires. Additionally, these communities in fire-prone lands increase the likelihood of evacuations taking place and people losing possessions, property, and businesses to the fires. Huang sympathized with these individuals saying, “I haven’t been affected directly, but on the news, I’ve seen lots of people who have lost their homes—their entire lives basically—and it’s really sad how all these wildfires are taking over the homes of so many Americans.”

Of course, any discussion of this year would not be complete without the mention of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The presence of the pandemic gave firefighters additional issues while attempting to contain and quell these fires as it became a safety concern to combine units as well as fly in assistance from other states or countries. Kumar agreed, saying, “I think organization was difficult, but I also think COVID-19 made it so much harder” as well as adding that she believed “a higher budget, especially on the federal level, more attention, better communication, and better methods for evacuation” would have been beneficial to the general public as well as help firefighters more effectively combat these fires.

Horrified by the damage that wildfires can do to the environment and to our own communities, people have begun to wonder about the outcome of the next fire seasons and whether or not governments are equipped to deal with fires of similar magnitude again. Schimdt leaned on more of a hopeful outlook: “I feel like it could get better in the future. Next year, it might not be as extreme. I don’t think it’s possible for it to be this bad next year, but it definitely could be. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call to people.” The extreme wildfires that have plagued the world this year have had a tremendous impact on the environment as well as the lives of many individuals, but by taking this wake-up call, working to halt the ever-disastrous effects of climate change, and being conscious of our actions, perhaps the world will not be forced to suffer this unbearable amount of loss to wildfires in the years ahead.