- Wildfires are a natural part of California's landscape.
- Long and intense dry seasons increase moisture stress on vegetation and makes forests more susceptible to severe wildfires.
- The length of fire season seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of wildfires across the State.
As a resident of Southern California, the first thing you note is the smoky, hazy, grayish-orange tinged skies. The overcast clouds might deceive you into thinking they are rain clouds; but they are not! They are smoke-filled clouds caused by the raging Californian fires. To my utter horror, I found soot filled particles coating my car. The weather folk on T.V channels continuously warn about the unhealthy air.
Inhaling smoke from a wildfire can be equal to smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day depending on its thickness, says a researcher studying wildfires in Western Canada. Mike Flannigan, a Professor with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta, said the smoke is like a “Chemical Soup” that can be trapped in the lungs and cause a number of health issues.
California’s wildfire flames pose severe problems to people, wildlife, and property, the smoke that they billow out poses a health hazard over an even larger area. Smoke not only contains carbon monoxide, which is poisonous, it also contains tiny soot particles that can work their way deep into people’s ( and other animals’) lungs, causing respiratory irritation and distress, The air quality in many areas has deteriorated to levels that the Environmental Protection Agency categorizes as “unhealthy”.
Each Californian fire is driven by wind and high temperatures; the blaze quickly sweeps through scrubland, forest and desert in Southern California. Wildfires have already burned more acres in 2020 than in any year on record. More than 3.1 million acres have burned in the state since the start of the year-another record. Six of the 20 largest fires are happening now.Nine of the ten largest fires since 2012.Seventeen of the 20 largest fires since 2003.
The Apple Fire blackened and eerily exposed the landscape, all that remained was the skeletons of charred, leaf-less trees. On July 31,2020 a vehicle spat out burning carbon north of Cherry Valley and ignited the Apple Fire, which grew into a more than 33,000-acre inferno, the second largest the California region had seen in more than a decade.
The El Dorado fire was started by a gender reveal party, after a pyrotechnic device ignited the fire. It burned the San Bernardino National Forest on September 5,2020, near Yucaipa, California.The wildfire escalated during a record-setting heat wave where temperatures upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit and low humidity caused bone-dry fuels to be set ablaze.
According to Fabius Maximus,”Ignitions caused by human activities are a substantial driver of overall fire risk to ecosystems and economics. Actions to raise awareness and increase management in regions prone to human-started wildfires should be a focus of United States policy to reduce fire risk and associated hazards”.
California, Oregon and Washington are enduring a wildfire season of historic proportions. Extremely hot summers and dry winters have “led to tinder-dry vegetation.” Barack Obama has underlined the connection between the raging wildfires in America’s West and the climate crisis, noting that: “Protecting our planet is on the ballot.”
Wildfires produce a range of harmful air pollutants. Harmful ingredients include:
- Particulate matter (PM): the principal pollutant of concern from wildfire smoke for the relatively short-term exposures (hours to weeks) typically experienced by the public. Particles from smoke tend to be very small (with diameters of 2.5 micrometers and smaller), and can be inhaled into the deepest recesses of the lung
- Carbon monoxide (CO): a colorless, odorless gas, is at highest levels during a fire’s smoldering stages, especially very near the fire. CO is mainly a risk to people (like firefighters) who work near smoldering areas.
CDC has given some helpful suggestions on how to equip oneself during these wildfires. Wildfires continues burning in California, with unhealthy air from smoke still cloaking many parts of the State, Combined with COVID-19 Pandemic, the fires are compounding risks that have been brewing for years.
Earth-observing instruments on satellites and aircrafts are mapping the current fires, providing data products to agencies on the ground that are responding to the emergency. Researchers from NASA, JPL and GSFC were instrumental in analyzing the satellite data, and the NASA Disasters Program and NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team coordinated directly with stakeholders from the California National Guard to aid in tracking the impacts of the fires.