Personal Safety

Forest Fires, Drought, Climate Change and You ~ The Climate Advisor

Forest Fires, Drought, Climate Change and You ~ The Climate Advisor

Author T Goodwell
When the forest is dry in the spring, it leads to an early fire season and bigger fires. This is exactly what’s been happening in the West for at least the past decade or so. These warm, dry winters are just one of many signs that we are heading into a drought of epic proportions, especially in the Southwest, as discussed in a previous post .
Just to recap, if we keep burning fossil fuels and emitting CO2 at the current rate, we can expect: An 80% chance of a mega-drought lasting 35 years in the Southwest and Central Plains A drought with no equal in human history, greater by far than the Dust Bowl era Huge economic and health impacts
The economic risks of drought are many. Water intensive industries, such as farming, ranching, forestry, mining and power generation, will be the hardest hit.
The need for water for agriculture is obvious, but some folks don’t realize that water is a necessity for mining, which uses huge amounts of water to process ore. Power plants also use huge amounts of water to make steam to drive turbines and to cool power generation equipment. Lack of water will hurt these industries, which means that people will lose their jobs and move away, and many towns and cities will shrink and disappear.
The health risks of drought are many, but we’re going to focus on the health impacts of forest fires in particular. I come from a family of wildland firefighters. It’s a good way to make a quick buck apart from your day job, at least when you’re young. Plus, I love the mountains, so forest fires are an especially important topic for me.
Forest fires impact the air quality of hundreds of thousands of people every year. If you’ve ever lived in a big western city, you’ve probably experienced at least one summer when a forest fire a hundred miles away turned your city into a big smoking mess. And even if you didn’t realize it, a forest fire a thousand miles away may be making the air worse where you live. Time-lapse Satellite Image of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, New Mexico, May 2012.
The risks from smoke are not just for asthmatics, but also the very young, the elderly, and those with chronic disease. This is the same group of people affected by ozone, as you might recall from an earlier post on that topic. To give you an idea of the impacts of forest fires on health, we’re going to look at two scientific papers: one about the increasing number and intensity of forest fires in the Southwest since the 1980s, and another one about the effect of forest fire smoke on the health of a small city.
Forest Fires Getting Worse
The first paper from 2006, is titled Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity (Westerling, et al, 2006, Science , 313:940-943). This paper gave me that “ah ha!” moment when I read it years ago. The authors studied western wildfire activity over time, and concluded that there was an abrupt change in the mid-1980s from infrequent fires of short duration, to bigger, more frequent and longer burning fires.
They state that this change was likely due to reduced winter precipitation and unusually warm spring seasons that led to early snow melt, and longer summer dry seasons. Because of the shift to warm and dry winters, forest fires went from lasting about a week, to burning an average of 5 weeks, which implies that more forest is being burnt than before.
(As a side note, anytime you see an “abrupt change” in a natural system, you can bet that means something is pushing hard on the system. In this case it would be the rapid build up of CO2 in the atmosphere from human activities over the past 200 years.)
Here’s a graph of how much forest was burnt over the past few decades. You can see a definite increasing trend.
I remember that the 2011 and 2012 fire seasons were especially destructive. Every fire was “the worst fire in state history,” for New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Here’s a list of the major fires from those years, for example… Wallow Fire, May – June 2011, largest in Arizona history Las Conchas Fire, May – June 2011, largest in New Mexico history Whitewater-Baldy Fire, May – June 2012, largest in New Mexico history (again) Waldo Canyon Fire, June – July 2012, most destructive in Colorado history
The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, Colorado was especially costly that summer with 34,500 people evacuated and over 350 homes destroyed. Of course this pales in comparison to the fires in California where at least 8 people have died and over a 1,000 homes have been destroyed so far this summer.
Part of the blame lays in the fact that more people are moving into harms way by moving into the mountains and forest, but the size and frequency of these fires is directly related to climate change. It’s also important to note that millions of dollars of damage has been done, and millions more spent on fighting forest fires. So much is being spent on fighting fires that the US Forest Service’s budget is being eaten up by fire fighting costs. These are direct economic impacts of climate change that are happening right now . Health Impacts of Forest Fires
Drought induced forest fires are not just a theoretical risk to health, a someday-maybe sort of risk; this is real people being affected now. As an example, I recall an 11-year-old girl I took care of in the pediatric emergency room a couple of years ago. She had a severe asthma attack after being exposed to smoke from a forest fire. We took good care of her, and sent her home later that day. For me, the link to the forest fire, which was the biggest fire in state history at the time, and climate change is hard to deny.
When a forest burns, tiny smoke and ash particles are lofted into the atmosphere and spread over hundreds to thousands of miles. These particles are small enough to get deep into the lungs and cause problems. If you are very young, very old, have asthma or other lung diseases, then you are in trouble.
The impact of forest fire smoke on health is shown in the graph below from an excellent study titled, Population Health Effects of Air Quality Changes Due to Forest Fires in British Columbia in 2003: Estimates from Physician-visit Billing Data , (Moore, et al, 2006, Can J Pub Hlth, 97(2):105-108).
The top part of the figure shows levels of particles in the air before and after a large forest fire in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, a city of about 179,000 people. The dotted vertical line shows when the fire started.
The bottom part of the figure compares visits to local doctors for respiratory complaints between two periods of time; the previous 9 years of visits (grey squares), and the visits during the forest fire (black circles). If forest fire smoke makes people sick and go to the doctor, then the two sets of symbols will separate from each other. This is exactly what happens. What Should We Do to Protect Ourselves?
Western winters are getting more warm and dry due to climate change, making forest fires bigger and longer lasting, causing more property damage, and making people sick. Pretty straightforward. So what should we do if we live in an area prone to drought and forest fires? Cutting CO2 emissions, conserving water and leading by example in our personal lives is required.
Fights over water have always been vicious throughout human history. With increasing population worldwide, shifting rainfall patterns, melting glaciers and drought brought on by climate change, water is poised to be THE major source of conflict in the coming decades. Agriculture will have to adapt to low water-use systems, water-intensive industries will have to conserve and use less water. Coal and nuclear power are water hogs, so they should be phased out and replaced by solar and wind power, which require no water to operate.
We must also cut our own CO2 emissions, and drastically cut back on water wasting behaviors. A green lawn is the biggest offense and just plain unnatural for almost all the arid land west of the Mississippi. Water will eventually be strictly rationed in large parts of the West, so no more lawns, no more car washes, no more fountains, no more hosing off your driveway.
Here is a water conservation and two forest fire safety sites for you. I checked them out and the info looks reliable. Water Conservation Water conservation tips from the National Geographic http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/water-conservation-tips/ Fire Protection How to set-up zones of protection around your house http://www.readyforwildfire.org/ A checklist from Colorado State University http://extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/natres/06304.pdf
I like to suggest ways to cope and adapt, but ultimately there is only one solution, which is not to let it happen in the first place. Nobody no matter how well off will easily adapt to a megadrought. So the best course would be to prevent it if we can, because we will all be forced to migrate if we can’t. Based on the study we looked at last time , there is a significant difference in the chance of megadrought between modest CO2 emissions reduction scenario and worst case, business as usual scenario.
If you were my patient and you came to me with some terrible disease, and I told a you that you had a better chance of survival with treatment, versus doing nothing, I think the choice would be obvious. In the case of megadrought, the “treatment” is to keep within our fossil fuel budget to hold warming below 2C. We have to leave it in the ground, divest from fossil fuel investments, adopt even more alternative energy, help developing countries skip the need for fossil fuels, and so on. We have to get off the “worst case” path that we are on.
Neighborhood Residents evacuate from Waldo Canyon Fire, photo by Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette Summary
Some impacts of climate and drought we did not go into include: what are the specific social and psychological impacts of large scale unemployment and forced migration? What happens when farmers can’t grow crops and ranchers can’t raise livestock? Where will people go if they can’t work and there’s no water?
All of these are important questions. We can look to the past for some of the answers, although the potential magnitude of what can happen has no parallel in human history. Future blog topics for sure.
Here’s a summary of what we’ve covered in this post… Climate change causes warm winters Warm winters lead to dry forests, which lead to forest fires Forest fires damage property and pollute the air with smoke 100’s to 1,000s of miles away Smoke causes people with asthma and other chronic diseases to suffer The only real solution to prevent the worst from happening by rapidly phasing out fossil fuels Encourage industry and communities to be good stewards of our limited water resources Conserve water at home Prepare for water emergencies and long-term shortages Prepare for fire and smoke emergencies Be one of the first to migrate before the SHTF
What will you do to keep the worst from happening — or to prepare for the worst if it does?

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