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America is on Fire: How the Wildfire West is Being Scorched to the Ground

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020

America is on fire. Literally. In Alaska (7 current fires), Arizona (11), Colorado (5), Florida (1), Idaho (2), Montana (3), Nevada (2), New Mexico (2), Oregon (7), South Dakota (1), Texas (2), Utah (4), Washington (6) and Wyoming (1), wildfires are raging with local fire crews struggling to contain them. As bad as these fires are, however, they can’t compare to the devastation being wrought in California. The Golden State is currently battling scores of wildfires, with a vast 1.25 million acres having been scorched already. In fact, the current LNU Lightning Complex and the CSU Lightning Complex fires are now ranked No. 2 and No. 3 respectively on the list of all-time biggest wildfires in California. With seven confirmed deaths, thousands of structures destroyed and many tens of thousands of people displaced, 2020 is on track to be California’s worst wildfire year on record.

Across the World, Wildfires Are Getting Worse

It’s not just the western United States that has been experiencing ever-worsening wildfires. While smoke from California making it all the way to Virginia is undoubtedly extreme, strong winds brought the remnants of wildfires in Siberia all the way to Alaska and even western Oregon. We also saw some of the most catastrophic fires in Australian history around the turn of the year, torching an area larger than the combined size of Belgium and Denmark.

Within the United States, the most notable statistic isn’t the number of wildfires but the amount each fire is burning. Since the National Interagency Fire Center began officially compiling statistics in 1983, the annual number of fires has fluctuated but the overall acreage burned has surged. Take a look at these 10-year averages:

Number of Wildfires per Year (10-Year Average)

  • 1983-1989: 57,174
  • 1990-1999: 78,587
  • 2000-2009: 78,549
  • 2010-2019: 64,071
  • 2020 (through 08/24): 38,531

Number of Acres Burned per Year (10-Year Average)

  • 1983-1989: 2,481,611
  • 1990-1999: 3,323,558
  • 2000-2009: 6,121,539
  • 2010-2019: 6,846,857
  • 2020 (through 08/24): 3,714,355

As you can see, the number of annual wildfires has been steadily dropping after a peak in the 1990s. However, the affected areas have almost tripled over the course of the past thirty years. While there are various contributory causes, most experts agree on three main culprits: climate change, landscape mismanagement and fire suppression.

Wildfire Cause Number 1: Climate Change

Despite the myriad discussions on the effects of climate change in our day-to-day lives, the connection between higher temperatures, longer droughts, stronger winds and rampant summer infernos is undeniable. This deadly cocktail of climactic conditions even resulted in the National Weather Service having to issue a first-ever “firenado” warning in California earlier this month. In fact, such environmental extremes are particularly pronounced in the Golden State, where a recent paper found that the frequency of autumn days with extreme, fire-fueling weather has more than doubled since the early 1980s.

A key factor to note in these drastic weather systems is that they can happen simultaneously or consecutively. Take the recent “firenado” example. First came a record-breaking, continuing heatwave across California. This resulted in rolling blackouts as Californians seeking to cool their homes strained the electrical grid. Next, a tropical storm in the Pacific Ocean spun moisture toward California. This triggered a rare lightning storm that sparked small fires across northern California. The humidity then dropped and winds picked up, stoking the small flames until they erupted into full-blown infernos.

However, while climate change was a major cause of the recent fires, it was aided and abetted by…

Wildfire Cause Number 2: Landscape Mismanagement

It is worth remembering that wildfires are actually natural and necessary in places like California. In fact, indigenous peoples have utilized controlled burning to control bug infestations and plant debris for generations. These “prescribed burns” would have the effect of renewing the landscape while also clearing source material upon which wildfires thrive. According to Chris Dicus, Professor of Wildland Fire and Fuels Management at California Polytechnic State University, the lack of these controlled fires has led to “an overabundance of trees that just says ‘fuel’ for the fires. Also, sometimes overabundant trees cause all the trees in the forest to be weakened because there is only so much water and nutrients to go around.”

And this ties in neatly to the third issue, namely…

Wildfire Cause Number 3: Fire Suppression

On the face of it, fire suppression sounds like a good thing. But as indigenous people knew that working with fire was the best way to stop it, latter-day settlers viewed fire as inherently negative. As populations in traditionally fire-prone areas increased, cities pushed their boundaries deeper into the wilderness. And as more people built on remote mountains and hills, they put their properties at risk of becoming kindling. The natural fear of the human and financial toll of fires resulted in long-standing policies of snuffing out any and all fires, no matter how insignificant. However, as scientific opinion has evolved, it does seem that such strict measures are slowly being phased out. As with any form of environmental alteration though, it may take a considerable amount of time to bear fruit.

CentrAlert’s SOS Siren Module Can Help Protect Your Community from Wildfires

With climate change, landscape mismanagement and fire suppression all combining to make wildfires more likely, what can we do in the short-term to keep communities safe? The most crucial aspect in any wildfire scenario is to be able to safely evacuate residents as quickly as possible. And the most effective way to do this is with a CentrAlert SOS Siren Module.

The SOS Siren Module provides direct two-way controls with native Whelen protocols to any Whelen siren. The SOS Siren Module can also merge with third-party sirens, allowing a common interface to multiple manufacturers. This adaptability to a variety of siren setups means that the SOS Siren Module lets you quickly alert your affected areas using new or existing sirens. On top of this, the best-in-class scalability of the SOS Siren Module allows users to control both outdoor, community-wide systems as well as smaller, indoor facility systems, making it ideal for any organization.

The SOS Siren Module can be adapted to fit any emergency preparedness plan and if you want more information on how CentrAlert can help protect your community from wildfires, please click here.

COMING SOON: Give Context to Every Siren Activation with the Know NOW! App!

You may already be familiar with CentrAlert’s Know NOW! App for COVID-19. If not, this brand new mobile application shares real-time COVID-19 alerts from state Governors’ offices, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and beyond to get the most relevant safety information straight to any mobile device. This includes updates on closures, travel restrictions, executive orders, CDC statistics, COVID-19 test sites, re-openings and more.

But while Know NOW! is currently a free information source for COVID-19, we are currently working on expanding its functionality! Later this year, Know NOW! will offer any organization the ability to send dedicated public or private alerts, complete with maps, resources and more. Whether you’re a local emergency manager wanting to give context to a siren activation with mobile push notifications or you’re a regional fire chief who needs to alert crew members to an emerging wildfire, Know NOW! will allow you to reach the right people with the right message at the right time.

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