Wildfires and the harm they bring can be minimized

The smoke pollution from Canadian wildfires last summer killed more than 100 people in Michigan — about two dozen in Detroit alone, according to a Cornell University study.

Other Detroiters, like June Mack, saw their medical conditions worsen dramatically. Mack, a retiree living in Northwest Detroit who has asthma, was confined to her home and still could not escape the smoke’s impact. She suffered vertigo and double vision that required her to wear an eye patch and give up driving for months. And it left her worrying about the effectiveness and cost of her asthma inhaler. Mack told Planet Detroit, “I’m concerned that if the air quality is still bad…will [it] work? Or do I have to go to something else more expensive?”

Wildfire smoke and its impacts have long been an issue for many in the western United States. But the fires there are getting worse there too. They are getting worse everywhere. It is climate change in action.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as of July 6, 150,082 acres had burned so far this year in wildland fires in the state. That is nearly four-and-a-half times the five-year average (34,257 acres) for the same time interval.

“The world is on fire” is no longer a metaphor. In the United States, that means almost 16,000 deaths per year from wildfire smoke. That number could nearly double by mid-century, according to an April analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Another study this year out of Yale found that we could already be near 30,000 deaths per year, when factoring in all the additional harm to heart, lung, kidney and mental health in the aftermath of smoke exposure.

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The destruction does not end with the fires and smoke. There are the floods that follow the fires. And all the injuries and illness also carry both extreme human and financial costs. A study published last month found that in California, between 2008 and 2018, there were 52,480 premature deaths associated with exposure to the fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke. And the health care costs from that exposure exceeded $432 billion.

Climate change creates the conditions for these fires and ignites them. But, part of a vicious cycle, the fires themselves also help fuel climate change.

Our North American forests have an especially big role in cleansing our air. They are among the forests sometimes referred to as “the Earth’s lungs.” These forests are particularly carbon-dense, because of all the carbon their trees pull out of the atmosphere. Therefore when these forests burn, the fires release significant amounts of carbon dioxide, which in turn creates more warming. And that in turn creates more fires.

Moreover, while the underlying conditions for longer fire seasons and more intense blazes are supercharged by global warming, new research shows that hotter temperatures are themselves likely causing fires to start. We have known that fires continue to smolder under the snowpack in our Arctic forests as so-called “zombie fires.” Then, when the weather warms, if there is ample vegetation for those fires to consume, they can essentially rise from the ashes of last year’s fire with new life. But new research indicates it could be the heat itself that is lighting the new fires and increasing the prevalence of zombie fires.

The soils of North America’s Arctic and boreal forests are rich in peat. Rapid increases in temperature above ground can cause peat-rich soils to heat up to smoldering temperatures underground, without any other spark or ignition. Add forest fires started by spontaneous combustion to the list of the impacts of climate change.

So, what can we do? For one, we need to break our fossil fuel addiction immediately. The cycle of wildfires, carbon release and atmospheric warming described above can only be broken if we stop pushing the problem along by continuing to burn fossil fuels.

The other thing we can do is protect our trees and plant more of them. Old growth forests are especially important because they are more fire resistant and absorb and store more carbon than their younger counterparts. And those forests have a well-developed understory — the layer of vegetation between the ground and the upper forest canopy. Many understory plants are perennials that come back after a fire.

That means the initiatives from the Biden-Harris administration to protect old growth forests and to plant trees in American cities are critical. The most obvious start is preserving mature and old-growth forests and trees on federal lands from being cut. And the $1.5 billion investment in urban forestry by this administration is another great step. Expanding urban tree canopies directly benefits communities with the addition of much-needed shade and green space. And with 84% of Americans living in or just outside cities, that is important. We should be planting trees in every community.

As we work to slow the warming and increase protections for trees and forests, if you live in a place with fires or fire smoke, take care, and stay inside when needed. If you live somewhere with an acute risk of fire or post-fire flooding, consider taking precautions like having an emergency plan and packing a go-bag.

This is our new normal, but we do not need to just accept it. The solutions are right in front of us. We just need to find the will to reach for them.

Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

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