Forget the fireworks this year. It’s just too hot and dry right now across much of the western United States. From 1992 to 2015 more than 7,000 human-ignited wildfires started on July 4.
There are three ingredients needed for wildfire: climate, fuels and ignitions. We are changing all three. And we’ve put tens of millions of homes in harm’s way. We’ve essentially built a nightmare into flammable landscapes, made more vulnerable because of climate change. Fires are very responsive to warming, just a little bit leads to a lot more burning. We’ve seen at least a 2-degree Fahrenheit increase across the western U.S., since the late 1800s. That increase in temperature has contributed to drier fuels and a doubling of the forests that have burned across the west since the mid-1980s.
Against a backdrop of warming, people start wildfires. People provide the ignitions for 84 percent of our nation’s wildfires. And even worse we start the vast majority of wildfires that threaten our own homes. In the wildland-urban interface, where homes mingle with flammable vegetation, we start over 97 percent of the fires that threaten our neighborhoods and towns.
The ignitions ingredient is part of the wildfire problem we can tackle right now. It will be harder and much more challenging to curb our changing climate and the consequent increase in wildfires. We have a certain amount of locked-in warming that is expected to increase wildfires over the next few decades, particularly in western U.S. forests. But we can deal with the ignition piece of this puzzle. We need Smokey Bear to visit the suburbs. There are many ways that we provide the sparks that start wildfires, e.g., debris burning, campfires, powerlines, yard equipment, and fireworks.
Some cities and towns are canceling fireworks displays, more should. Las Vegas, Tuscon, San Francisco, Fresno, Spokane, Bend, Bismarck and surrounding towns are just some of the locations in the large swaths of extreme or exceptional drought conditions right now.
We need to rethink how we celebrate July 4. I love fireworks as much as anyone. But I’m not going to do something that burns my neighbor's house down or my entire town. Is that an American thing to do? We can celebrate in new ways such as a laser light show put on by your local town or making s’mores in the microwave this year. We need to consider state-wide bans. Massachusetts is the only state that has implemented a ban on the sale and use of consumer fireworks. States in the West that get much, much drier and hotter over the summer should also consider state-wide bans.
However, reducing human-related ignitions is just part of what we need to do to build greater resilience to increasing wildfires. We need to rethink how we build in flammable landscapes. We have national floodplain maps to reduce risk, but we need national fire maps that better direct development.
We’re asking too much of our firefighters. They are not out celebrating on the Fourth of July — they’re bracing for the wildfires that ensue. They’re underpaid, overworked and exhausted. More than 150 fire scientists have sounded the alarm. Let’s give our firefighters a break this year and forget the fireworks.
Jennifer Balch, Ph.D., is a fire researcher, associate professor of geography and the director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder.
This piece has been updated.