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Our country is on fire — will political leaders help?

Our country is on fire — will political leaders help?
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With at least six people dead, dozens of fire fighters and civilians injured, at least 500 houses and structures ablaze, not to mention many rendered homeless from the evacuations implemented, an inferno rages on in California. It already consumed land acreage greater than the size of Rhode Island. 

In a press conference, the state’s Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomMajority want their states to stay open amid coronavirus surge: poll Newsom, family quarantining after exposure to COVID-19 One of Gov. Newsom's children quarantines after potential COVID-19 exposure MORE said, "we simply haven't seen anything like this in many, many years." With climate change induced temperature rise and earlier snowmelt happening, it is very likely that we will be seeing more fierce and deadly fires.

Beyond the fires in California, as of Aug. 25, there are large fires (larger than 1,000 acres, roughly more than the size of Central Park) currently raging in 14 states: seven in Alaska; 16 in Arizona; 24 in California; five in Colorado; one in Idaho; seven in Montana; two in Nevada; three in New Mexico; 14 in Oregon; two in South Dakota; one in Texas; five in Utah; four in Washington; one in Wyoming. Often, these larger fires can be made up of hundreds of smaller fires.

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It is important to note that wildfires do serve a function and are important to keeping forest ecosystems healthy — fires pave the way for new growth and clearing of previous debris and dead vegetation. But often there is a clock on this process and if the clock runs out, it becomes a problem. In other words, with fires burning longer or hotter each time, our ecosystem simply ceases to recover as it otherwise would.

Planning ahead for a new breed of fires is non-negotiable because it is one of the only ways to ensure that our first responders are more than prepared to fight them and that they are not exposed to unnecessary risk. Currently, there are about 26,000 personnel — wildland firefighters and agency support staff — combatting and monitoring approximately 92 large fires encompassing an area of 1.5 million acres in the 14 states mentioned above. The California fire activity accounts for the lion’s share with an estimated 1.1 million acres impacted.

Forests house roughly 80 percent of our nation’s freshwater resources, which may also be impacted by high and unprecedented wildfire activity. According to a 2016 research study, the total area consumed by forest fires has already doubled since 1984, due in large part to anthropogenic climate change. Wildfires also have the potential to irrevocably change watersheds for the long haul, which can have severe consequences — not just on ecosystems but for humans who depend on safe-drinking water too.

Moreover, smoke and ash from fires contribute to unhealthy air quality ,which can impact people hundreds of miles away from a fire’s epicenter. Those most at risk are children, the elderly and those with underlying conditions (lung and heart disease), who are more sensitive to poor air quality. Often, if a region is impacted by a wildfire, it could have the worst air pollution day(s) of that year and this can often mean that everyone — not just those who are most vulnerable — may be at risk from breathing in the degraded air.

In recognition of increased wildfire risk, governors of states hit hardest by wildfires (mainly those in the American West) and our presidential candidates must make sure that wildfire policy clearly accounts for climate change and give adequate attention to how wildfires may impact other issues — namely water security and public health. 

Urooj Raja is a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder currently conducting research on the human dimensions of climate change. Previously she did research on wildfires as a research analyst at Climate Central.  Please follow her work on Twitter @uroojra.