Wildfires could hit your hometown. Here’s how to prepare.
Your summer doesn’t have to go up in flames.
Summer’s right around the corner, but the heat is already on. From unrelenting sunshine to sizzling grills, feeling hot (and cooling down) are part of the daily grind now. PopSci is here to help you ease into the most scorching season with the latest science, gear, and smart DIY ideas. Welcome to Hot Month.
In the past handful of years, wildfires have been the focus of headlines all across the world from California to Australia—but even more parts of the world are at risk of them directly and indirectly. Natural or controlled fires are actually an age-old phenomenon that has kept forests and wildlife healthy for centuries, but when human-started fires get out of hand it can be catastrophic for everyone involved. However, these massive fires pose a risk to wildlife, the health and safety of nearby residents, and even health of people far away thanks to risky air pollution that can travel for miles, especially as more humans move out closer to the wilderness.
“What we’ve ended up with is a really large population,” says Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “If you look nationwide, something like a third of the households are in an area that are susceptible to wildfires.” And that population growth isn’t slowing down—one study shows that by 2050 one million more people will be living in fire zones in the state of California alone. At the same time, wildfire season, which typically runs from May to October in various US states, is stretching earlier and later into the year.
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So, if you happen to live in one of the areas more likely to be impacted by fire in the next couple of months or even the next few years, there are quite a few things you should be aware of in case things get heated.
The massive fires that overwhelmed the West Coast and Australia over the past handful of years can likely be boiled down to three major “ingredients,” says Dave Peterson, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Washington. In order for a wildfire to become a catastrophic one, there needs to be a lot of fuel, a period of dry weather that dries out this material, and something to ignite the fire. In the past, when a fire happened in the woods, there was just enough dead leaves and small saplings to replenish the soil and help trees regrow.
“The good fire, that’s for keeping the forest healthy, is a low intensity fire that burns along the forest floor, consumes small branches, leaves, young trees, and creates forests that are often described as sort of park-like,” says Field.
But since people have moved closer and closer into the forests where these natural blazes occur, policies have changed to suppress fire instead of letting it run its natural course. That means more and more fuel build up, to the point where even a tiny spark could set off a giant fiery chain. Combined with a changing climate that leads to longer and drier summer seasons, and the fact that people are mowing lawns, hosting barbecues, and starting their cars right by these forests means that the third ingredient—a touch of fire—is always lurking around the corner.
‘“If you suppress fire and ignite fire, guess what? You get big fires,” says Stephanie Pincetl, founding director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.
And suppressing flames doesn’t just amp up the risk for humans living in fire zones—in places that have been very tightly managed like the Sequoia National Forest, the trees aren’t able to bounce back without natural, low-level fires, Pincetl says.
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Over the past couple of decades, the areas at risk of forest fires have doubled, and fire seasons have lengthened across over a quarter of the Earth’s vegetated surface. And that’s not just in typically hot regions of the world—just last year, parts of the North Pole, which is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, experienced the worst fire season in 60 years with one Russian town becoming the first place above the Arctic circle to hit over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the wet rainforests of the Amazon, fires have surged in the past couple of years. Looking back, 2019 was a particularly rough year for wildfires—as fires burned through 80 percent more rainforest than in the year before. Communities that normally escape the West Coast’s summer scorches were razed to the ground last year in Lake Madrone, California and Scio, Oregon.
Wildfire preparation at home and in the community
Even if you live in a risky corner of the country, there’s a lot that you can do as an individual—and even more that you can do as a community—to protect yourself, your family, and your neighbors from the most severe impacts of wildfires. For starters, making sure that all new buildings use the latest fire-safe building codes mandated by the state.
“California has pretty good code for new buildings, but we don’t have much of a history of applying those new codes retrospectively to existing structures,” Field says. A few things you can do to spruce up your home in time for fire season include upgrading to double pane windows and changing your roof to a fireproof material.
In terms of vegetation, it’s important to make sure to clear up the flammable brush and plant native plants, like sage and lavender, that are more resistant to fire near your home. Additionally, Field says to make sure that any trees on your property don’t have branches below the roofline—which could allow a sort of ladder for fire to climb up from brush all the way to your house.
In addition to preparing your dwelling, supporting community initiatives to make sure your neighbors are also doing their part to protect from fires is essential. After all, if your neighbors house goes up in flames it’s a huge risk to you as well, Peterson says. Plus, it keeps people’s lungs and lives safe miles and miles away. Working with your community to prepare for well-thought-out evacuation plans, public health infrastructure, road access, and rescue centers could seriously curb the damage from a forest fire. Paying attention to websites like FireWise and national wildfire maps are also important in tracking any information before and during an emergency.
Going forward, Pincetl adds that it’s crucial that state, local, and federal governments make funds available to people to retrofit their homes, as well as compensate property owners to keep more development from happening in high-risk areas. That way, small fires can happen like they would naturally without causing problems for people living in the area, as we’ve seen in places like Baja in Mexico.
“The Mexicans have not been able to afford fire suppression like we have in California, and there are regular fires and low-intensity fires and you don’t get the property destruction like we have,” Pincetl says. “There’s an example right next door if the natural fire regime is enabled to happen.”
And while fire-safe strategies might not change much overnight, the more we focus on both fire-proofing and taking care of the ecosystems we live in, the less likely the summer will turn into a fiery nightmare.