The continuing emergency in the western U.S. are a reminder to everyone just how unpredictable and devastating wildfires can be. Large fires can cause $1B or more in property damage in addition to the cost of firefighters and equipment. This year, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy reports that as of October 6, 2020, there are about 22,000 firefighters and support personnel assigned to 69 wildfires (39 of which are large and uncontained) in the west that have burned over 4.6 million acres. Added to previous fires this year that were put out, there have been 45,196 wildfires that have burned 7,928,100 acres in 11 states, including fires in 4 parks under the control of the National Park Service and others under the control of the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The current fires in California have burned over 4M acres, destroyed 9,200 structures and claimed 31 lives. More acreage burned as a result of the current California fires than in the last 3 years combined, and more than any other year on record according to CalFire.
State and local firefighters are not alone in the efforts to contain and extinguish these fires. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) is marshaling its resources and satellites to help deal with this natural disaster. NASA scientists have created maps and other data to track the fires and smoke plumes and make predictions about which areas may be affected next. Moreover, after fires, NASA images of burn areas from aerial and orbital data will help to mitigate other disasters like landslides and mudslides. Readers interested in satellite photographs of California can check out this website. NASA is also using drones and airplanes to identify fires and burn scars. To assess the long-term damage, according to NASA, accurate measurement of burn scars is critical. Loss of vegetation in mudslide-prone areas, for example, increases the risk of mudslides during rainstorms. NASA is also looking at the movement of smoke from the wildfires to understand its effect on the environment and people.
The effects of breathing wildfire smoke can be serious and immediate. Wildfire smoke is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning vegetation, building materials, and other substances. Smoke from large fires can travel thousands of miles. In fact, Newsweek recently reported that smoke from the west coast fires has been detected in Ohio and Hawaii. Breathing smoke can cause coughing, shortness of breath, stinging eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose, sinus irritation, chest pain, headaches, asthma attacks, tiredness, and a fast heartbeat. Pregnant women, older adults, children, and those with pre-existing heart and respiratory conditions are more likely to get sick from breathing wildfire smoke.
The CDC recommends following a few guidelines to avoid breathing wildfire smoke. First, pay attention to public health reports/alerts concerning local air quality. If the alert asks people to stay indoors, follow that advice. Second, local government reports of visibility and particulate counts allow you to determine air quality and respond accordingly. Third, when you are indoors, run the air conditioner with a clean filter and the fresh air in-take closed to prevent smoke from coming into the house. Fourth, when external smoke levels are high, do not use candles and fireplaces or anything else that burns. Avoid using the vacuum because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside the home. Don’t smoke tobacco or other products, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air. Use an “N95” mask if available. Finally, avoid smoke exposure while outside (e.g., bonfires, smoke from grills, and the like).
Thanks to advancements in satellite and drone technology, scientists are in a better position to support state and local efforts to contain wildfires, predict the spread of existing fires, and mitigate additional risks to people’s health and the environment.