Every day, the media reports another wildfire. Another date, another name. It’s a journal of disappointment and loss. As a matter of fact, the National Interagency Fire Center records an average of approximately 70,000 wildfires per year, ever since 1983.
Wildfires have started a long way back, before William Shakespeare was born, before Cleopatra sat on her throne, before Galileo Galilei made his first observations of the stars. Even before the dinosaurs went extinct. Scientists have discovered that the earliest wildfire started during the Silurian period, approximately 419 million years ago, when oxygen levels were higher than today’s.
So what are wildfires? What causes them? What’s their impact on today’s environment?
First and foremost, wildfires are uncontrolled, destructive fires, on a large scale, that spread quickly and destroy land and vegetation. They are orange, fiery plagues that furiously spread through forests, devouring everything in the way. To demonstrate its speed, wildfires have blackened 5.6 million acres this year, and this is only from the US. From mountains to valleys to forests, what once used to be a rich, calming green has yielded to be a monotonous ocean of charred, dried-out grass. All due to wildfires.
Thus, what causes wildfires? Why are they so frequent? Wildfires are triggered by many things. Many get started due to natural causes. For instance, lightning. Lightning is the most frequent single cause of natural wildfires, and tends to be bigger than other wildfires. As similarly described by Bettina Boxall, lightning strikes are ‘like dropping a match into a lake of kerosene’. When lightning strikes a surface, it creates enough heat to power a fuel source or ignite any smoking organic material into a turbulent fire. Wind can be another factor of wildfires as well. Wind increases the oxygen supply, therefore, increasing the rate of the wildfire. Intense winds moreover exerts enough pressure to physically change the wildfire’s direction as well as move it forward. In short, wind affects the wildfire’s intensity and speed.
However, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, otherwise known as the DNR, discovered that 16.6% of wildfires, between 2010 and 2019, were actually caused by lightning, while 73.4% were caused by humans. The remaining 10% were by an undetermined reason. A conclusion we can clearly draw from this statistic is that the majority of wildfires are triggered by us. Furthermore, it is through common actions that we start a wildfire. According to the WSRB, there are many ways we can start a wildfire. Firstly, through debris or yard-waste fires. These fires are started with the purpose to clear garbage, and often, they can get out of control. Secondly, arson. This is the illegal act of setting property on fire intentionally, and as expected, can quickly transform into a wildfire. Thirdly, equipment use. Equipment, such as metal lawnmower blades, can cause tiny sparks, and if these sparks land on flammable material, it’s very likely a wildfire can be started. Last but not least, climate change. Though climate change is not directly caused by humans, it’s fueled by it. As claimed by National Geographic, climate change increases temperatures, reduces rain, encourages droughts and brings about more wind and lightning. If this doesn’t start a wildfire, it sustains it.
Referring to science.org, human-caused wildfires are more harmful than lightning-induced ones. This is because the infernos caused by us spread 1.83 kilometers every day, while the lightning-sparked fires only travel 0.83 kilometers, twice as less. This informs us on how much damage our actions can do to our Earth.
As we are on the topic of damage, what impact does wildfires have? Apart from potential death, wildfires greatly affect us. They bring around dry conditions, which means more droughts, leading to a decrease in water supply. Moreover, wildfires disrupt our transportation, communications, power and gas services as well as our home.
Speaking about home, what does it do to our real home then? The environment? Wildfires sweep through forests, consuming trees till not even their skeletons are left. Not only do wildfires destroy our homes, they destroy many habitats as well, leaving animals lost and homeless. If wildfires are not threatening the animals, they are threatening their lives. Additionally, wildfires deteriorate air quality, leading to air pollution. This can result in humans having breathing difficulties, like asthma or lung diseases. Also, wildfires elevate carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) levels through emissions into our atmosphere, aiding global warming. To add fuel to the fire, wildfires moreover wipe out our solution to better air quality: plants. Plants are our source of oxygen, and without them, we wouldn’t live. Wildfires destroy forests, resulting in lesser oxygen. They also eradicate any vegetation, which can lead to soil hardening, preventing water absorption. This promotes the transportation of sediments and debris into larger bodies of water, such as oceans and seas, and this pollutes valuable resources, to both humans and animals. In summary, wildfires damage and disrupt our ecosystem.
In conclusion, there are many solutions we can follow to prevent wildfires. Firstly, don’t be irresponsible. Always ensure that a campfire or cigarette is properly extinguished, for a spark can set a whole forest on fire. Secondly, be environmentally friendly. This contributes to the well-being of our environment as well as prevents our weather from getting drier and warmer, lowering the risk of a wildfire. In the end, it’s up to us to save our forests, before all that is left is… fire and brimstone.