Climate Change and Wildfires: What’s the Connection?

By Krystnell A. Storr

Forest fire and rising smoke

Forest fire

For me, fire comes from the end of a match or the flick of a lighter—a controllable little ball of fury the size of a fingertip. For others, it is the transformation of the towering pine trees that surround homes and roadways into a horde of fiery giants. Its march, dangerous and unruly, has made one thing very clear: the rise of wildfire activity in the U.S. is an important scientific and environmental issue—one that that is being amplified by the effects of climate change.

To determine an amount of wildfire activity in a given year, scientists measure the area burned.  The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports that in 2012 alone, 67,774 wildland fires burned through more than nine million acres of U.S. land, three times more than the five-year averages from a few decades ago.

Wildfires are unpredictable and containing them can be challenging and dangerous. According to the NIFC, last year the total direct costs of fire suppression exceeded 1.9 billion dollars nationwide. But that’s not all: wildfires are a major source of airborne pollutants such as fine particulate matter that can lead to serious health issues.

In a study funded by EPA, scientists are modeling projections of wildfire activity fifty years from now. The study takes into account the possible effects of global warming—changing vegetation and less precipitation—in areas already prone to wildfire activity, to determine how future fires may affect air quality.

Using past data, the team built models that link wildfire activity to meteorological conditions. The scientists estimate that by the year 2050, wildfire activity is expected to double in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains Forest, and the Eastern Rockies/Great Plains regions.

The team showed that we may experience shorter springs and warmer summers that in turn would mean prolonged periods of wildfire activity. According to the study, the combination of a longer fire season and an increase in the acreage burned could have impacts far beyond the immediate fire zone, negatively affecting visibility in national parks and wilderness areas and worsening the air quality.

Results of the study have been published online in the scientific journal Atmospheric Environment.

Although a number of wildfire smoke forecasting methods are available, there is no systematic program aimed to lessen the public health burden in nearby communities. In another study, EPA scientists are evaluating the possibility of using smoke forecasts to help societies cope with and recover from wildfires. Understanding how climate change impacts the frequency and severity of wildfires, and in turn our environment and health, is one of the Agency’s priorities and an issue we should all be concerned about.

About the Author: Krystnell A. Storr is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Black Flies on Mountaintops

By Amy Miller

I might as well move to Alaska where you have to walk around with a net over your head all summer. The little black flies were so bad at the top of Blueberry Mountain in the White Mountain National Forest of Maine (that’s right! The Whites Mountains cross into Maine) that I couldn’t even sit at the summit long enough to eat my brownie.

No gloating at the top for us. Down we rushed from the 1,780-foot peak in the Caribou Speckled Mountain Wilderness Area. And although I didn’t notice it during the three-mile loop, come to find out the bugs were not just buzzing in and out of my mouth and eyes, but had taken enough tiny chunks to leave more bumps and welts than I could scratch with two hands.

Why was I surprised? Do I normally stay inside in May and June? According to Maine Humorist Tim Sample, Black Flies are the unofficial Maine State bird. And the Maine Outdoors website said black flies are most common in wooded, wet areas with lots of standing water. And they especially like hot calm days with little wind. AHA!

So what is a hiker to do? Wear long sleeves or pants, is one idea. At least it’s a good idea if you like to hike around in summer in long sleeves and pants. But then you are probably already doing that to protect against ticks. Not me. I like my shortie shorts and tank top.

A little research and I learned black flies are about 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch long. While mosquitoes breed in still water, black flies breed in running water. Like with mosquitoes, bites come only from the adult females.

Repellents can help: anything from a popular moisturizer to 90 percent DEET to little hunks of garlic cloves, depending on who you ask.

Since the bugs tend to leave you alone when you are hiking, I cringe to think what I would look and feel like if I had stopped for more than 30 seconds at the summit. But let me tell you, the hike was well worth it. We came to a pool at the bottom of a waterfall that would have been worth the $500 airfare to Costa Rica. But next time I head up to the White Mountains of Maine (really, they exist), I will remember zip-on legs and a neck bandana.

About the author:  Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, seven chickens, two parakeets, dog and a great community.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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