Here in Colorado, perhaps you’ve noticed the hazy quality of the air, the strange orange color of the sun, or the rare inability to see Pikes Peak. This isn’t a symptom of a hot summer, but rather one of a much more sinister kind: fire. Fires are raging across the U.S., destroying thousands of acres of natural land, demolishing people’s homes, and negatively impacting air quality.
According to firefighters, there are around 76 fires burning across California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The most affected areas are Montana and Oregon, with 21 and 18 active fires, respectively. These fires have already destroyed 1.5 million acres of land. Not only have people in the immediate area of the fires in Oregon, Missoula, and Los Angeles been forced to evacuate from their homes, but air quality across North America has deteriorated. Fires are dropping ash on Seattle and Portland, and there has been severe damage to historic areas and national parks, including Montana’s Glacier National Park, California’s Yosemite National Park, 70 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail near Mt. Rainier, and Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge near Eagle Creek.
While these wildfires seem to be out of the ordinary, the shocking reality is that they are only aberrant in the fact that there are so many at one time. Like so many issues, it takes extreme cases to get the public interested and involved in the issue of wildfires; but, on average, there are 75,000 wildfires every year in the United States that burn down over 7 million acres of land. Humans cause around 90 percent of these fires, while lightning causes the remaining 10 percent. Campfires, fireworks, and cigarettes are the main culprits of human fires—in Oregon, the Eagle Creek fire was caused by a 15-year-old throwing fireworks into dry brush. It has so far destroyed 15 miles of forest in the Columbia Gorge.
Most fires across the U.S. are predicted to end in late September and early October, but this is just an estimate due to variable weather patterns. Until then, people near the fires have been warned to take precautions in exposure to the air. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued warnings about the air quality, saying that children, older adults, and people with heart or lung disease are at the highest risk for smoke-related health problems, but that everyone should be cautious about intensive exercise outdoors (greater inhalation of smoke), and leaving windows open.
These wildfires are more than just a nuisance in how they affect air quality. They are destroying thousands of miles of natural land that serve as shelter for animals, contain trees that contribute to the air we breathe, represent decades of history, and provide a refuge for humans from the busyness of everyday life. While these fires are especially devastating, many can be easily prevented by checking weather, complying with burn bans, and in general not burning anything unusual or setting off fireworks near dry brush. Now and in the future, if we want to be able to continue to enjoy the natural world that surrounds us, we must respect it—and think before using natural spaces in a potentially harmful way.
As you head off on Block Break next week to various forested areas, be sure to check fire bans online and call rangers. Be cognizant of where and how you are building fires and never leave a fire unattended. While there is little we can do to stop the fires that are already raging, we can at least prevent more from starting.