Thursday, October 24, 2013

A changing climate blamed for bigger wildfires

Changing climate leads to bigger, smokier wildfires

Bigger wildfires may become a bigger
threat to public health, experts warn.
Photo by Danilo Rizzuto/
This year more than 4,000 wildfires burned almost a million acres across the Northwest. That falls below the 10-year average, as only one year in the last decade has had fewer fires than this year.

Scientists are quick to point out that no single fire season can be attributed to changes in the global climate, but as summers in the western half of the United States become drier and warmer, the chances of bigger, longer smokier fire seasons is expected to increase.

A recent Harvard University study has found that by 2050 the wildfire season for the western United States will be about three weeks longer and be up to twice as smoky because of changes connected to global warming. 

In the Pacific Northwest, the area burned during the month of August could increase by 65 percent.

Wildfires come with smoke and health effects

With larger, longer-lasting wildfires, air quality is projected to suffer. Based on the amount of on-the-ground biomass available to be burned, researchers expect to see wildfire smoke increase in the Northwest between 40-100 percent in the coming decades.

Wildfire smoke is made up of tiny organic and black carbon particles that are a fraction of the diameter of a human hair. These microscopic particles can travel deep into the lungs and even cross over into the bloodstream. 

Inhaling those fine particles isn’t good for anyone, not even healthy people. Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, leading to coughing, headaches, scratchy throats and runny noses. 

And for some people, wildfire smoke can be life threatening. It can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and even strokes.

Wildfire smoke is already one of the biggest drivers of degrading air quality throughout the Northwest. Over the past few months, wildfires have created hazardous and smoky conditions, and clouds of smoke as big as thunderheads billowed over communities in Southern Oregon and Central Idaho.

Looking back on U.S. fires

Since the 1980s, the overall number of wildfires and the amount of acres burned in the United States has increased steadily. As the climate has warmed, snow melts earlier and dry periods have lengthened both of which favor fire conditions.

Other factors contribute to increasing the size and severity of wildfires, including a history of fire suppression over the last century. Fire suppression can lead to an abundance of biomass on the ground in forested areas. That biomass serves as kindling that turns what might have been a small manageable fire into an unstoppable megafire.

But even after you account for fire suppression, climate change is still a factor. Places like Yellowstone National Park, which have experienced larger wildfires in recent decades, never had active fire suppression.

Extreme fire behavior has become more common.

Editor's note: This story has been edited for length.

Breathe better air indoors

During wildfire season and beyond, a movable indoor air purifier with an activated carbon and HEPA air filter system can help remove potentially dangerous airborne contaminants.

Smoke particles and chemicals as well as other volatile organic compounds, allergens and mold spores can effectively be trapped with activated carbon and HEPA. Activated charcoal adsorbs chemicals, gases, odors and fumes, while HEPA traps 99.97% of particles at 0.3 microns.

Electrocorp offers large and small-footprint air cleaners for commercial, industrial and residential use. For more information, contact Electrocorp today.

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