Philippe Higuera is a professor of fire ecology and paleoecology at the University of Montana. Alexander L. Metcalf is an Associate Professor of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at the University of Montana. Dave McWethy is Associate Professor of Earth Sciences at Montana State University. Jennifer Balch is an associate professor of geography and director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
This story originally appeared on The conversation.
The heat wave hitting the northwestern United States and Canada has been smashing recordswith temperatures 30 degrees Fahrenheit or more above normal. With drought already gripping the West, the intense heat has helped suck even more moisture from millions of acres of forest and grassland, bringing dead vegetation in many areas to record levels of drought and raising the danger of fire to its highest categories.
With this combination of extreme drought, heat and dry vegetation, all it takes is a spark to ignite a forest fire.
Humans start the most wildfires on July 4
For decades, one of the most striking and predictable patterns of human behavior in the western United States has been people accidentally started fires on July 4. From 1992 to 2015, more than 7,000 wildfires started in the United States on July 4— the greatest number of forest fires ignited on any day of the year. And most of them are near houses.
With dry grasslands and parched forests this year, sparks from anything – a cigarette, a campfire, a power line, even a lawnmower blade hitting a rock – could ignite a wildfire, with deadly consequences.
All year, humans extend fire season lighting fires when and where lightning is rare. And it is these same fires that pose the greatest threat to lives and homes: more than 95% of forest fires that have threatened homes in recent decades were started by people. Further from human development – beyond “the interface between nature and the urban”– the majority of the area burned by wildfires in the West is still due to lightning.
Whether triggered by people or lightning, human-caused climate change makes it easier for fires to start and spread due to increasingly hot and dry conditions. The western United States has seen these consequences for Record fire season in 2020-and fire season 2021 has the ingredients to be just as devastating.
Here’s how to stay safe
We have spent years studying the causes and impacts of wildfires in North America and around the globeand working with managers and citizens to imagine the best way to adapt to our increasingly inflammable world. We described flammable landscape management strategies and thought carefully about how communities can become more resistant to forest fires.
When asked “what can we do?” many of our suggestions require long-term investment and political will. But there is things you can do now to make a difference and potentially save lives.
around you, moving flammable materials such as dried leaves and needles, gas and propane containers, and firewood away from all structures. Clean your gutters. If you’re towing a trailer, make sure the chains don’t hang so low that they could hit the curb and cause a spark. If you must mow a lawn, do so during the coolest, wettest hours of the morning to prevent accidental sparks from starting fires in dry grass. Don’t drop cigarette butts on the ground.
Adapting to increasingly uncharted territory
Fingerprints of human-caused climate change are all over the world current drought, recent heat waves and what could become another record fire season. The research highlights how human-caused climate change increases the frequency and magnitude of extreme eventsincluding drought, forest fire activity and even individual extreme fire seasons.
Adapt to longer and more intense fire seasons will require reconsidering certain traditions and activities. As you celebrate this 4th of July, stay safe and help firefighters, your neighbors and yourself by preventing accidental wildfires.