View from a fire scientist when the world is burning


As a fire scientist, people tend to call me when the world is burning. The calls have become frequent.

“Isn’t this terrifying?” they ask (they being journalists, my students, members of Congress and random folks on Twitter).

“It’s not great,” I reply. We live on a fire planet, I explain.

Most of the world will burn, is adapted to burn and needs fire as “medicine” — it’s “good fire,” prescribed fire, Indigenous burning. Extreme wildland fires — like we’re seeing in the western U.S., Canada, Europe, North Africa, the Amazon and Siberia — damage the very landscapes that animals, plants and people need to survive, besides emitting more carbon dioxide than many countries. Climate change will continue to make these extreme fires more likely to happen. And it will make them harder to fight.

Wildland firefighters will no longer be able to engage and dampen fires during the night, instead climate change is already increasing nighttime temperatures so fires will continue to grow overnight.

“So, we’re doomed?” they ask (although it often seems more like a statement than a question).

“No,” I say (although it often feels more like a plea than a declaration). Fire is a complex problem that does not have one simple answer, but there are many interconnected actionable solutions we can do right now to make our present and future better. Climate action is needed to reduce warming because a hotter world means more fires. We needed climate action yesterday, so the next best time is now.

Most fires are caused by people, as is the mismanagement of forests and wildlands via fire suppression and build-up of fuels. Ignoring Indigenous and traditional uses of prescribed fire to reduce fire risk was our choice. We can not control the lightning, and climate change will continue to increase fire risk by making the conditions by which ignitions spark and wildland fires to grow once ignited. 

Yet, we can manage the fuels (the vegetation on the landscape) and prevent many human-caused ignitions.  And we can return to using fire as medicine — as others who know more about this than I have been arguing for some time now.

“Should I worry about the smoke?” they ask (telling me about how hard it was to breathe when the wildfire smoke arrived this summer).

“Oh, yes,” I say (knowing that we live in a time where breathing is dangerous and even political). Keep those N95 and KN95 masks – even when the pandemic is at bay, you’ll need them for the smoke. Ultrafine particles in the smoke can penetrate deep into your lungs and enter your bloodstream, leading to many negative health outcomes like respiratory morbidity. Some have found that particles of 2.5 microns or less in diameter from wildfire smoke  leads to more hospitalizations than exposure particle of the same size from other sources — even leading to premature deaths and increased COVID-19 cases.

“Wait ‘til you hear about the formaldehyde,” I say in a joking way to soften the bad news: wildland fire smoke contains a lot more cancer-causing formaldehyde than previously thought.

“What do you worry about?” they ask (which seems like a hope for inspiration or absolution).

“That we won’t act. Because it seems too hard, too expensive, too contentious.” I say (not softening the reality). 

“It’s all so… sad, right?” they state.

“It’s… a lot,” I pause. I know many of you are grieving and are planning or have already moved to escape the impacts of fire and climate change. I am a daughter of Appalachia, so I have no comforting words for you.

Life is grief.

For generations, many of us have been forced to move because of poverty or natural disasters and this, to me, seems inevitable. Is the palpable shock and sadness because it feels that suddenly people who are not usually marginalized must pay the piper?

Even with domestic climate refugees, and climate refugees from our closest neighbors in Latin America, I remind you that there is much that we can save and good people working toward that.

The truth is that climate change — and wildfires with it — will get worse, and it will only get better if we take real measures now. This shouldn’t be confused with half-measures that keep burning ever increasing fossil fuels or ignoring land management that reduces fire risk. The truth is hard. And often scary. But that’s the thing about truth, as Jesus would remind us: It’ll set you free.

It is the end of August 2021. So far, unprecedented heatwaves have sparked fires in western Canada and U.S., destroying whole towns, threatening Indigenous and First Nations communities, as well as burning thousands of structures. The smoke from these western wildfires has transported across the continent, now worsening the air quality of large East Coast cities and smaller southern states, like my home state of Kentucky.

Somewhere there’ll be smoke tomorrow — and fire.

There’s always more fire.

Jessica L. McCarty, Ph.D., is a fire scientist, geographer and associate professor at Miami University.

Tags Climate change Fire fire season Fossil fuels Global warming Jessica L. McCarty prescribed burning Wildfire

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