Have you ever wondered what it would be like to wake up and look out the window to see a red sky? Beginning in early September, that became the reality for many living on the West Coast, especially in California, Washington and Oregon. The air was filled with ash and smoke, giving it a dark red-orange color and making it dangerous to breathe. Buildings, roads, and cars were coated in ash as well.
Wildfires in California during this time of year are unfortunately nothing new, but this year, the amount of wildfires is much more than it was in years prior. Firefighters and civilians alike are concerned about the devastating impact the fires are leaving all along the coast. As of September 19, the National Interagency Fire Center reported 22 total fires in California alone, covering over two million acres. All 22 were uncontained and continued to spread due to wind. All together, the fires covered over 5.8 million acres of land, and despite efforts being made by U.S. firefighters as well as firefighters from Canada, many of the fires remain uncontained.
Since the fires began, there have been 26 related deaths as well as many more casualties. People were forced to leave their homes, their businesses, and their belongings behind in order to seek shelter somewhere safe. State governments are ordering evictions as the fires are spreading and the air quality is worsening in certain areas of the country. Air quality is a factor that many people are worried about, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. If the air outside is unfit to breathe, it could cause respiratory problems that can open up more possibilities for the virus to spread. This is cause for concern especially for immunocompromised individuals who are trying to avoid situations where there is a potential for COVID to spread to them or their loved ones. With the mandated evictions, those who have been quarantining in their homes may need to relocate, opening up more chances for exposure to the virus.
Researchers also believe that climate change is affecting the speed, duration, and scale of the fires. Intense, prolonged heat waves are the prime conditions for wildfires to start, while the longer rainy seasons cause more plants and trees to grow that then feed the fires, increasing their spread and intensity. Once the fires are extinguished, the exposed earth and rainy season that will follow opens up the possibility for mudslides which can cause even more damage to the West Coast in the months to come.
The main cause of wildfires is humans. Using lighters and matches carelessly and leaving campfires and bonfires unsupervised are some of the ways that wildfires can begin; if the surrounding ground, brush, and plants are dry, the fires can spread quickly and become uncontrollable. One of the fires – the El Dorado fire – in California began during a gender reveal party when the pyrotechnic machine that was being used to reveal the gender of the baby set off a spark that soon engulfed the area in flames. Not only has this fire contributed to the destruction and contamination of the West Coast, spanning over 22,000 acres, it’s also sparked debate about the ethics of gender reveal parties and the elaborate lengths people go to for such events.
Though wildfires can begin through more natural means such as lightning storms and trees
falling on power lines, it’s crucial for Americans to do their part and be careful with potentially flammable materials when outdoors, especially when the risk for fire is high.
Sources: CNN, New York Times, National
Interagency Fire Center