Here’s what the experts are saying about this spring and summer’s wildfire season.
The NFL keeps adding games and Christmas decorations now appear on shelves before Halloween, but football and the holidays aren’t the only seasons that are expanding. Unfortunately for our nation’s forests and lungs, an ever-lengthening wildfire season is just a fact of life in the 21st century.
Last year, 66,000 individual wildfires burned 7.5 million acres of land across the U.S., resulting in property damage, displacement, and over 3,000 human deaths—not to mention the deleterious impact on air quality felt for hundreds of miles from the source. This year promises more of the same, so here are some thoughts on what to expect and how to prepare, with a focus on a few of the most vulnerable states.
Arizona, one of our hottest and driest states, has reason for optimism this year, with experts predicting a less dire fire season than in 2022, when severe drought conditions prevailed. This year, with a wet winter behind us and snow lingering on the ground, fire danger is thought to be average or below average for the coming season. The good news of a wet winter comes with a major asterisk, however: Wet conditions encourage more vegetation to grow, and when that growth inevitably dries out in the hotter months, the result is even more fuel for the fire, literally.
Looking back, by mid-spring of 2022, California’s fire season was already underway, burning nearly 6,000 acres as a preamble to a devastating season that saw billions of dollars in damage done. This year, California has had a reprieve of sorts due to historic rains that have delayed the start of wildfires (while doing epic damage of their own, unfortunately.) Sometimes, the explosion of vegetation that results from a rainy winter results in an equally explosive fire season as those superblooms become fuel. But not always. California’s wildfire fate in 2023 depends on what comes first: the winds or the rain. With luck, early rains could take the heat out of fire season. But there’s no way to tell just yet, so the only answer for those living in fire-prone areas of the Golden State is to make an evacuation plan and be prepared.
With the three biggest wildfires in state history in its recent past, Colorado is a state that has learned to take fire mitigation and preparedness seriously. Its recent struggles have been due not only to the usual combination of a hotter, drier climate and human behavior—in Colorado’s case, they can also point the finger at beetles. A scourge of four species of beetles has decimates millions of acres of forest, turning formerly majestic conifers into, essentially, 100-foot-tall, 100-year-old kindling. The good news is that Colorado this winter accumulated its deepest snowpack in several season — 140% of the median depth — which has helped downgrade this year’s wildfire threat to “moderate.” In 2023, that qualifies as a win.
Michigan isn’t the first place you think of when you’re thinking about wildfires, but with lots of forests and a high population density, lower peninsula Michigan in particular has become a… hotbed of fire activity. Officials in Michigan are putting an emphasis on education, because it turns out that 90% of Michigan’s wildfires are caused by human error. Backyard debris burns and barbecues are two major culprits: The advice is to do all outdoor cooking over pavement, keep a hose or other water source nearby, and thoroughly douse embers and ash. Don’t burn debris without a burn barrel or a burn pit. Don’t park vehicles or other hot equipment on dry grass. And never leave any fire unattended—even if you think you’ve extinguished it.
Oregon’s gorgeous timberlands and vistas are threatened annually by wildfires, with the state frequently among the most fire-beseiged states in the country, measured by acres burned and by number of individual fires. Most of Oregon’s fires are caused by lightning or human activity.
This year, a pilot program is rolling out to attempt to spot and mediate incipient wildfires faster than ever before, by means of surveillance technology. The Oregon Hazards Lab, in collaboration with the Science and Technology Directorate, has deployed approximately 30 sensors and cameras developed by two companies, German firm Breeze Technologies and Maryland-based N5 Sensors, throughout Willamette Valley, an especially fire-prone region of the state. With a real-time data stream monitors by a consortium of universities and governmental agencies, and public-facing camera feeds (anyone can check what’s happening at this link: www.alertwildfire.org), the ultimate goal is faster detection and quicker response.
As a warming planet creates drier conditions and more dramatic storms, accompanied by human migration into ex-urban, formerly wilderness areas, the threat of wildfires is a growing and un-ignorable problem. With large, intractable problems–and wildfires are no exception–the solution isn’t one thing, but a little bit of everything. Technology, education, and preparedness are the three keys to minimizing the damage to life and property. To this end, the federal government has pledged $200 million to help vulnerable communities prepare for wildfires.
And, of course, you should prepare, too, even if you don’t live in a fire-prone region; at the peak of fire season, toxic smoke can drift far and wide. Start with eight easy steps you can take right now to help ensure your safety. Here’s how to prepare for wildfire season.