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Wildfires Ravage Western Seaboard, Health Risks Cross Borders

The internet has been overwhelmed with pictures of California and Oregon engulfed in flames this past week. As of Monday, 87 large fires are burning across the Western United States covering more than 4.6 million acres of land over ten states. 

  • Tens of thousands of Americans have been forced to evacuate. The current death toll is 30, with dozens more still missing. 

In Short: The Western United States is currently facing some of the largest and most destructive forest fires ever recorded. Many are sounding the alarm on irreversible climate change, overlooking how the unprecedented damage has been stoked by poor forest management and lack of funding.

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Political response is largely united

Many state leaders are emphasising that the magnitude of the fires is a direct effect of climate change, while the President remains skeptical.

“The debate is over, around climate change… This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has affirmed this view, warning that climate change is an imminent threat that his opponent President Donald Trump continues to be skeptical of. For years, President Trump has been blaming California’s lack of forest management for the catastrophic fires. 

The effects of climate change

Forest fires play an essential role in a forest’s ecosystem by helping to maintain health and biodiversity. The scope of these fires has been increasing at an alarming rate.

Nine out of ten of the most destructive fires in California have taken place over the past two decades. 

Hotter temperatures prolonging the fire season and millions of trees killed by a five-year drought have caused California’s forest fires to expand quickly to record sizes. Many experts agree that the effects of climate change are increasing the risk of forest fires and fueling the fires to record sizes.

The role of forest management

The dangers that forest fires pose to neighbouring communities necessitates human intervention. However, supressing too many small fires allows for underbrush and dead trees to accumulate in forests. This acts as fuel which leads to larger fires that cannot be controlled and leave significant devastation in their path.

Still, reimagining forest management is only part of the solution moving forward. Mitigating the effects of climate change and controlling development in vulnerable areas is also necessary, but impossible without adequate funding.

The dangers of smoke to Canadians

Air quality can be heavily impacted by the spread of smoke, which has been reportedly affecting cities along the western seaboard of North America from Vancouver to Tijuana. Vancouver’s air quality is considered “Very High Risk” according to Environment and Natural Resources Canada.

Air Quality Health Index, Government of Canada

This is another example of how the impacts of climate change cannot be expected to conform to national boundaries.

The Bottom Line: There’s plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the ongoing growth of wildfires. Increased risk due to human caused climate change, coupled with poor forest management and lack of government action, has caused irreversible damage to Americans living in the Western United States.