U.S West Coast Wildfires: Concerning Trend in Increasing Climate-Related Hazards

Long Panoramic Cascade Mountain Range Forest Wildfire

U.S West coast wildfires continue to damage regions of California, Washington and Oregon. This report analyses the concerning trend of increasing wildfire frequency across the globe, and potential future implications if the pattern and observed frequency continue. 

West Coast Wildfires Continue to Spread

Moving into late September, wildfires across the Western U.S states of California, Washington and Oregon continue to take lives, damage urban settlements and reduce air quality. The death toll has now reached 29, with the number of wildfires has surpassed6,000. Both deaths and the number of fires are likely to continue to rise as the wildfire season continues into October and November. From January 2020 through to September 27th 2020, 2,275,559 acres have been engulfed by flames. In comparison, the same time in2019 experienced 40,483 acres of burnt land and the five-year average is at 347,754 acres. Abnormally strong winds and low humidity present in the region since June have reduced the effectiveness of efforts to suppress the fires, continually increasing the risk of continued and rapid spreading. In Washington, the fire damage has been recorded as the second-worst on record, whilst air quality in Oregon has peaked at 512 on a scale that usually only reaches 500, with anything over 300 being ‘hazardous’ on the Air Quality Index (AQI). 

West coast settlements on the ground have experienced significant damage. Seven thousand homes and other structures have burnt in California so far. The impacts are diverse, with mass evacuations from Napa and Sonoma counties, likely to have extended implications to wine-production, with which the region is synonymous. Education has also been impacted, as the University of California at Santa Cruz enforced a full evacuation due to encroaching wildfires. The fires have not only taken an impact on the ground; they have also contributed to deteriorating air quality across large regions of the world. Smoke pollution has reached New York and travelled 8,000km to Northern Europe. The North Complex fire, one of the largest-fires measured by the area covered (per square km), has now been 74% contained whilst other fires such as the August Complex are reported to only be 34% contained, covering close to 900,000 square km’s.

Wildfire climate change environment

A Concerning Trend

The wildfires are not only concerning as a singular event but seem to follow a worrying trend of high-impact wildfire events in recent years. Last year, Australian wildfires burned over 110,000 square km, whilst the Amazonian region, Arctic regions and Indonesia all experienced severe and widespread fires. Although there is wide variation by region in which factors exacerbate wildfire risks, such as humidity, precipitation, geographical location and airflow, temperature rises seem to be the consistent underlying factor. It has been primarily concluded that increasing global temperatures in the long term, and spikes of short spell extreme temperatures, are constant causes of all wildfire outbreaks recorded in recent years. Due to this, it is highly likely that wildfire risk will continue to increase at least in the medium-term as global temperatures continue to rise. 

With regards to Australia, both extreme temperatures over extended periods and the increased likelihood of extreme temperatures over short periods, such as week-long spells of temperature spikes are, at least twice as likely now as they were in 1900Australian insurance firms are beginning to assess the need for an evaluation of a new baseline in terms of wildfire risk. There has been a long term focus within Australia of the increasing climate-change related hazards, but it seems as though this concern is now starting to gain visible traction in financial sectors. These findings, which followed the Australian wildfires in 2019 and 2020, seem to concur with the initial investigations into the risk factors causing the U.S wildfires occurring currently.

Scope for Scepticism?

It has to be acknowledged that some scientific research remains sceptical about whether climate-related factors have increased the number of wildfires or not. According to research undertaken by Doerr and Santin, for the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, Biological Sciences, the quantitative data surrounding wildfire severity and the number of incidents globally shows no clear increasing trend. It notes that there is less fire in the global landscape today than in the previous century. However, this statement is based on a worldwide average. These patterns are due to the offsetting of wildfire hazards with extreme precipitation events across Central Africa, China and the East Coast of North America, which are highly likely to increase fourfold over the coming decades. 

The majority of research agrees that increasing global temperatures seem to be affecting the likelihood of wildfire events, due to increased wildfire seasons and increasing fuel aridity. Climatic alterations are increasing fuel aridity through the drying out of forest vegetation, creating increasingly flammable areas of land. Moreover, the higher spring and summer temperatures along with early snowfall, which are non-disputed observations, are elongating the wildfire season, meaning there are extended periods during which wildfires are likely to ignite. These common factors in the Western U.S, Australian, and Siberian wildfires in the past two years are starting to display a pattern of outbreaks all due to repeating climatic factors.

Wildfire climate change environment

Future Implications

As first responders attempt to contain the persisting wildfires in the Western U.S region, it can be predicted how this concerning trend will play out over the coming years and decades. It is highly likely that wildfires are going to increase in frequency and become a significant global climatic hazard.  Currently, wildfires are placed as the seventh most common disaster type behind flooding, storms, earthquakes, extreme temperatures and landslides. However, if the trend of recent years continues, wildfires would be predicted to rise into the top five disaster types by frequency. It is also almost certain that new regions will become increasingly at risk of wildfires. Studies into current and emerging regions at risk of wildfires, it was concluded that areas such as South Eastern U.S, Eastern Europe, Western South America and China are experiencing climate and exposure trends that give cause for concern. This is illustrated below, with the map labelled red showing regions already at high risk, and the map labelled yellow showing potentially new areas of risk in the medium and long term. 

Looking Ahead 

Responding in the long term to this trend will require significant policy changes in many regions of the world, reducing carbon emissions in all sectors to ease global temperature increases. Therefore, more climate-conscious decisions will need to take place in the production of goods and services, supply chain management and transport. Potential strategies may include adopting green technologies and taxing carbon-intensive products. At the societal level, communities should adopt strategies to reduce carbon emissions in both daily lifestyles and work-related activities. Reactive responses to wildfires, such as an over-reliance on first responders is insufficient to alter and suppress this increasingly frequent natural hazard sustainably. It may no longer be possible to prevent the increased risk of wildfires in the next decade and therefore requires proactive steps to reduce global temperatures in the longer term.

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