The firefighters in the United States are starting to see it every year: an earlier start to the fire season and millions of acres of forest and range burned or ablaze as the summer just begins to heat up. So it is no wonder that 2,000-odd residents of Mariposa, in the Sierra Nevada mountains in central California, were asked to evacuate this week when officers battled an out-of-control wildfire that had destroyed eight structures. Residents were ordered to flee after flames from Detwiler Fire marched towards the community, threatening 1,500 structures. The Detwiler Fire is among the three dozen major, out-of-control wildfires burning across the US West as windy, dry conditions prompted authorities to issue evacuation orders and red flag warnings in California, Oregon and Nevada. Flames have charred more than twice as much land in California so far in 2017 compared with the same time last year. At least 60 large blazes are currently devouring parts of the country, threatening to make 2017 a record-breaking wildfire year and adding to the 3.4 million acres of land already burned this year.
In April, wildfires had scorched more than two million acres in the United States—nearly the average consumed in entire fire seasons during the 1980s. At least 20 new, large fires have ignited in the West in the last few days, forcing thousands of people to flee from their homes. The techniques used to fight fires—and the strategies to prevent them—have taken on new urgency in recent years with global warming exacerbating several devastating fire seasons across different provinces. Wildfires tend to occur at what’s called the Wildland-Urban Interface. This situation is worst in California. As per a report from the Center for Insurance Policy and Research, two million homes in the state are in wildfire-prone areas—14.5% of all the houses in California. Even British Columbia has been in a state of emergency this month, as hundreds of fires have forced more than 16,000 people from their homes and threatened entire towns and cities. The wildfire season began earlier and is more intense than years past, a trend that is believed to continue. Last year, the Fort McMurray fire became the most destructive in Canadian history, destroying nearly 1,600 buildings, triggering almost $4-billion in insurance claims and killing two people who crashed their car during their escape from the city.
Forest ecologists and climate scientists has linked wildfires to human activity. A study last year found that human-caused climate change had nearly doubled the amount of forest burned in the West since 1984. Dry conditions and drought have contributed to huge wildfire seasons over the past decade, including a record-breaking season in 2015 when over 10 million acres burned. Experts say we must shift how we approach wildfires as new research shows climate change will dramatically hamper our ability to stop future fires from destroying communities and industrial assets. A changing, warmer climate does make wildfires more likely. And human beings have attempted to manage them in myriad ways over the last century or so. They’ve cut down trees that seemed likely to burn, set intentional fires to try to mimic the periodic fires ecosystems rely on, and even favoured some kinds of plants. The warming atmosphere is only partly to blame. Decades of battling fires has meant that fires have been unable to burn naturally, a process that clears out undergrowth. Left to grow, that undergrowth has become fuel. Build more places for people to live in cities, and the number of fires in the wild—and the challenge of fighting them—goes down. But many forest ecologists say part of the answer to fighting fire is thinning and letting controlled fires burn.