Originally published on Union of Concerned Scientists blog.
By Carly Phillips, Science Fellow
The inevitable collision of wildfires and COVID-19 keeps me up at night. Not in an abstract sense, but more in a requires-allergy-meds-to-sleep type of way. Too many people are suffering already due to COVID-19, and the quickly approaching wildfire season, worsened by climate change, is going to make things so much worse. Sadly, we’re already seeing these intersections play out in real time in Florida, where fires are causing evacuation orders across the Panhandle.
The National Interagency Fire Center releases outlooks on the first of every month, forecasting which areas are likely to experience both above- and below-average fire activity. These outlooks combine temperature, precipitation, snowpack, and other observations to predict areas at higher risk for heightened fire activity. Below are their outlooks for May, June, July, and August, highlighting the elevated risk in the Pacific Northwest, Northern California, and the Southwest throughout the summer.
1. We can’t prepare like we usually would
Above-average fire seasons are nothing new in the U.S., but in previous years, we’ve had the opportunity to prepare and decrease risk by removing excess brush and vegetation (fuel loads), and training fire management personnel. This year, however, many of these preventative and risk reduction activities are not possible, leaving states and federal agencies scrambling to plan suitable alternatives.
Prescribed burns, one method of reducing excess wood and other fine fuels, have been scaled back this year due to personnel health and air quality concerns. Risk reduction activities, like trimming vegetation near powerlines, have slowed due to social distancing policies. Some personnel preparation activities have gone virtual, while the U.S. Forest Service has canceled in-person trainings.
The decline or absence of these activities could have serious consequences for the progression of fire season, both in terms of how intensely and severely a fire moves through a forest but also how effective wildland firefighters are at containing it.
2. Old emergency management and fire-fighting practices are riskier this year
In addition to stunted preparations, many of our typical response strategies, like evacuations, planned power outages, and shoulder to shoulder wildfire fighting are riskier and more complicated and no longer tenable in a COVID-19 world.
For evacuees, large shelters will require more space and new equipment if they are to keep individuals safe from not only the fire but the virus, not to mention the challenges of evacuating COVID-infected patients. In addition, the planned power outages that disrupted life across California last year would be particularly damaging, if not deadly, this summer, due to the number of people confined to and working from their homes. Local groups have already raised concerns about the impact of these shutoffs in their communities, and asked the Public Utility Commission to intervene.
But the impacts of the pandemic go beyond the general population and will affect how we actually fight fires on the ground. As if firefighters didn’t have it hard enough already, the close quarters and unhygienic conditions that wildland fire fighting demands are now much more dangerous due to the risk of contracting and spreading SARS-CoV2.
Guidelines for fire fighting in the Eastern U.S. suggest using a greater number of vehicles to reduce personnel density, providing personal protective equipment, as well as increasing isolation and self-sufficiency in the field. Fears about firefighters’ health are widespread, leading several policymakers to raise questions about how these frontline defenders will be protected and introduce legislation to promote the health of wildland firefighters.
3. Wildfire smoke reduces air quality
Both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke affect the respiratory and cardiac systems, in ways that threaten the health of those exposed. Early reports suggest that living in areas with poor air quality may increase the risk of COVID-19 related mortality. In the U.S., this means communities of color. Further, smoke impacts from wildfires threaten many of the same groups at high risk for COVID-19: those with underlying health conditions, like asthma or diabetes among others, and the elderly.
4. Climate change has made all of this so much worse
Although human management of land and fires has certainly exacerbated wildfires, climate change has worsened the trend of larger fires and, in the Western U.S., is responsible for the near doubling of burned area over the last 30 years.
As the planet warms, snowpack is well below yearly averages, and drought and rising temperatures dry out vegetation and soils, priming them to burn. We see this playing out in real time in the maps of fire risk for the Pacific Northwest, where drought has contributed to elevated fire risk. In the Southwest and parts of California, spring and winter rains increased the growth of grass that can now act as fuel for wildfires.
5. Despite knowing what needs to happen, WE HAVEN’T DONE NEARLY ENOUGH
Disappointingly, this is true not just for addressing wildfire risk, but also the pandemic and climate change. Despite warnings, the Trump administration consistently ignored the science predicting the scale of the US outbreak and failed to muster a coherent response.
When it comes to wildfires, adapting to the new wildfire regime by adopting policies to mitigate fire risk in the coming years will be critical, but also incredibly challenging. Development into the wildland urban interface continues to bring people into fire-prone areas, raising the risk for those populations, while creating challenges about how to limit this sprawl. Prescribed burns could be a critical tool, but come with their own health and air quality concerns.
In the long term, however, addressing climate change will be a key part of reducing wildfire risk. However, the global community has only recently begun to heed scientific warnings and reduce heat-trapping emissions. On all fronts, we need to do more.
What can we do?
Looking at wildfire risk, we need solutions on two different timescales — immediate interventions that will minimize loss of life and long-term preparation and planning to avoid this in the future.
Following public health guidelines to slow transmission of the virus will be critical in minimizing the collision of these compounding risks, both for wildfires and other risks like flooding and hurricanes that are bound to intersect in the summer and fall.
Some states, like Alaska, are instituting burn bans, while the Forest Service has barred campfires in several national forests. These actions should help reduce the number of ignitions this fire season.
Strict adherence to guidelines put forth by the Forest Service should help minimize the spread of the virus among fire crews. Legislation to protect firefighters, like what was introduced in the House last month, could provide critical care and protections to those who are defending their communities. In the same way that we are prioritizing testing for healthcare workers, we must proactively defend these firefighters.
In the long term, we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce global warming emissions by switching to renewables, electrifying vehicles, and more. These actions are critical for slowing climate change and avoiding its most catastrophic consequences.
But most importantly we need to stand up for science because without science, we can’t beat the pandemic, fight wildfires or climate change, or even know that Benadryl can help you sleep.
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