It's been all over the news lately: these huge fires in the west that stay in the cultural consciousness just long enough for the next massive fire to erupt. It's troubling to see a near-unending stream of impossible-to-contain blazes arise seemingly out of nowhere. Unfortunately, those of us with a background in the environment understand that these fires aren't coming out of nowhere. These fires are undoubtedly the result of the warmer and drier conditions caused by global climate change. It's frustrating to see a back-and-forth in the news, between people working in and studying fire in California, and those in the President's administration. A meteorologist will say there is an "undeniable link to climate change", and the next week the Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, claims that "This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management."
He certainly has a point, but it's a woefully ignorant bait-and-switch. As a result of the Smokey the Bear campaign, fire all but disappeared from many of the fire-dependent ecosystems in the west. For decades, zero tolerance on fires meant no prescribed burning, no real way to reduce fuel loads, no other large scale method of actively managing these fire-dependent forests. While actively managing these forests with prescribed fire would have meant these fires would have been far easier to manage, it truthfully wouldn't have done enough to make the frequency of fires we're seeing now any lower. That is solely the result of increasing temperatures, which whisk away moisture and make it far easier for fuels to ignite.
We've seen the impacts all across the world. Greece had the biggest fire Europe has seen in a century, which killed 74 people. Sweden had to request international assistance to control their fires. British Colombia had to call in hundreds of firefighters from around the world to assist in their hundreds of current wildfires. In Australia, bushfires are increasing in number and intensity. No matter where you go, you'll see the effects of climate change, and their undeniable impact on the presence of wildfires.
So what can we do? It's a massively intimidating question since we rarely see any individual work done to prevent wildfires, since everything is done through government agencies staffed by well-trained firefighters. While anyone without training should absolutely stay off the fireline, it doesn't mean you can't help spread awareness about prescribed fire as a prevention tactic, or simply about the relationship between climate change and wildfires. Increasing public awareness of climate change, as well as public understanding of the positive impacts of burning, means more people will favor active steps being taken to prevent wildfires. People supporting things like prescribed fire means (ideally) that our elected representatives will also support more methods of forest management, which will give them more funding and therefore make these methods more impactful.
We as individuals can also begin to implement prescribed burning on our properties, as a way to protect our own property as well as surrounding properties from wildfires. We can work to ensure our homes have buffers around them, spaces where nothing could possibly ignite and carry (or radiate) fire to our homes. We can be vocal about our acknowledgement of climate change, and adamant in our actions to prevent further wildfires. We can remind people to check their local fire weather before burning brush piles, help neighbors make their properties fire-ready, and keep our families prepared in case a wildfire does ever make it to our homes. There are many things we can do! We just have to start doing.