Intense smoke from raging wildfires in Canada is blanketing the skies over the border into New York and other parts of the eastern United States. This hazardous smoke has prompted air quality alerts affecting over 75 million people on the East Coast from the state of Maryland to Ottawa, Canada, posing a significant threat to public health, CNN reports.
Wildfires have ravaged Quebec, with several hundred incidents recorded in 2023 alone, Reuters reports, twice the historical average. The impact of these fires extends beyond Quebec, as Canada as a whole has witnessed more than 9 million acres of land being charred by wildfires, a staggering 15 times the normal burned area for the same point in the year. The scale of destruction is alarming, and human-induced climate change has significantly worsened the conditions that contribute to the spread of wildfires.
Scientific findings indicate that the carbon pollution emitted by major fossil fuel and cement companies can be directly linked to the scorching of millions of acres in the Western US and Canada. In fact, the burned area is estimated to be about the size of South Carolina.
Causes of Wildfires
Human-induced climate change has played a substantial role in exacerbating the conditions that fuel wildfires. The hot and dry climate has created a tinderbox effect, making forests and vegetation more susceptible to ignition.
Improper land management practices and the encroachment of urban areas into fire-prone regions also contribute to the occurrence of wildfires. Improperly extinguished campfires, discarded cigarettes, and debris burning can easily spark wildfires, especially during periods of high temperatures and drought, Accuweather reports. These human-caused ignitions, combined with the heightened flammability of landscapes due to climate change, create a dangerous synergy that increases the frequency and severity of wildfires.
The suppression of natural fire regimes over the years may have further disrupted the natural ecosystem processes that depend on periodic fires for renewal and regeneration, OPB reports. Without regular low-intensity fires to clear out dead vegetation and promote new growth, fuel loads accumulate, creating the potential for more intense and destructive wildfires when fires eventually ignite. This fire suppression policy, implemented to protect human settlements and resources, has inadvertently led to an accumulation of fuel and a departure from the natural fire-adapted ecosystems that existed for millennia.
Conditions for Wildfire Spread
Several factors contribute to the rapid spread of wildfires. High temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds create a perfect storm for the ignition and rapid propagation of fires, NOAA reports. Once ignited, the flames can quickly engulf vast areas, consuming everything in their path, including homes, wildlife habitats, and forests. The extensive smoke produced by wildfires can be carried over long distances, affecting air quality in neighboring regions.
The topography of an area also plays a crucial role in wildfire spread. Steep slopes and canyons can channel and accelerate the movement of flames, allowing fires to advance more rapidly uphill, reports the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Fire behavior can be influenced by the presence of valleys, ridges, and wind patterns, creating unpredictable fire fronts and making firefighting efforts more challenging. Additionally, the proximity of human communities to fire-prone areas increases the risk of property damage and poses a threat to human lives.
Dangers of Wildfire Smoke
The smoke generated by wildfires poses severe health risks to both humans and animals. Fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, is a hazardous component of the smoke that can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, reports the New York State Department of Health. Even healthy individuals face the potential for adverse effects, such as respiratory issues, cardiovascular problems, and long-term health complications. The most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, children, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing lung conditions, are at even greater risk.
“If you can see or smell smoke, know that you’re being exposed,” William Barrett, the national senior director of clean air advocacy with the American Lung Association, told CNN . “And it’s important that you do everything you can to remain indoors during those high, high pollution episodes, and it’s really important to keep an eye on your health or any development of symptoms.”
Exposure to wildfire smoke can trigger or exacerbate respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“A healthy person may be able to withstand a day or two without too many issues, but at these levels, even they are at risk,” said Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist with NYU Langone Health and Allergy & Asthma Network. “But someone who is vulnerable has much higher risk. Most vulnerable include (the) elderly, children, those with underlying lung issues like asthma, COPD, lung cancer, heart disease and pregnant women.”
The irritating particles in the smoke can inflame the airways, leading to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prolonged exposure to smoke can also weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to respiratory infections. Moreover, the toxic compounds present in the smoke, such as carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and hazardous air pollutants, can further compromise respiratory health and contribute to the development of chronic diseases.
Animals are also profoundly affected by wildfire smoke. Pets, livestock, and wildlife can experience similar respiratory issues when exposed to high levels of smoke and particulate matter, reports Your Vet Online. The smoke can irritate their airways and eyes, leading to coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, and eye irritation. Additionally, animals that rely on clean air and healthy ecosystems for survival, such as birds and small mammals, may experience habitat destruction and food source depletion due to wildfires, according to the Western Fire Chiefs Association. The long-term ecological impacts on animal populations can be significant, disrupting ecosystems and biodiversity.
Taking Action: Reduce the Risk of Wildfires
As concerned individuals, we have a responsibility to take action to minimize the risk of wildfires and protect our communities. By making conscious choices, we can contribute to a safer and healthier environment. Here are some steps you can take:
- Practice fire safety: Follow local fire regulations and guidelines to prevent accidental ignition. Be cautious when using fire outdoors, ensure proper disposal of cigarette butts, and avoid open burning during dry conditions.
- Be mindful of campfire safety: If camping or enjoying outdoor activities, always adhere to campfire safety guidelines. Extinguish campfires completely and never leave them unattended.
- Promote responsible land management: Support initiatives that promote responsible land management, including controlled burns and the removal of dead vegetation, which can help prevent the rapid spread of wildfires.
- Raise awareness: Share information about the dangers of wildfires with friends, family, and your community. Educate others on fire safety practices and the importance of preserving our natural environment.
- Support climate action: Advocate for policies and practices that address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Support renewable energy sources, promote sustainable practices, and engage with organizations working toward a greener future.
By taking these steps and committing to choices that reduce the risk of wildfires, we can protect our communities, safeguard our environment, and ensure a healthier future for generations to come.
Stay informed, stay safe, and let us work together to prevent and mitigate the devastating impacts of wildfires. Take the pledge to reduce wildfire risk and support a safer future for all!