What Makes Western America So Prone to Fire?

It seems like you can’t turn on the news these days without hearing about a fire in the western part of America. (Image:  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
It seems like you can’t turn on the news these days without hearing about a fire in the western part of America. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

It seems like you can’t turn on the news these days without hearing about a fire in the western part of America. California, in particular, has been hit with catastrophic fires in recent years, devastating hundreds of thousands of acres and destroying homes and other properties. What makes Western America so prone to fires, though, and what new technologies are popping up to help first responders fight these nightmarish fires?

Problem: A Mediterranean climate

People love the climate of the Western United States, especially in areas like Central and Southern California. The area is known for what is colloquially called a Mediterranean Climate — dry and hot summers that are marked by little to no humidity followed closely by mild and wet winters. It’s the perfect place to live for many people — but, unfortunately, it’s also the perfect recipe for wildfires. It can be difficult to ignite a wildfire in these areas during the wet season. During the dry season, however, once a fire is sparked, the climate provides the perfect environment for fires to spread unchecked.

Is it normal to have fires as often as we do? Not necessarily — when humans aren’t part of the equation, Central and Southern California would only experience devastating wildfires once every 30 to 150 years.

It’s not just the fires themselves that wreak havoc, either. The Santa Barbara wildfires that devastated California in December of 2017 burned more than 280,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings. Once the fires had dwindled, though, it was mudslides that caused problems — the burned landscape no longer had the plants and roots it needed to keep the mountainsides in place.

A tract housing development in San Jose, California. (Image: via wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.5)

People love the climate of the Western United States, especially in areas like Central and Southern California. (Image: via wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.5)

Wildfire health concerns

While the threat of fire is obviously the biggest health concern when we’re talking about wildfires, it isn’t the only thing that local residents need to be worried about. The smoke that is created by these massive fires can cause a variety of health problems, especially for those with heart and lung disease. The smoke also carries fine particles that can trigger asthma or other breathing disorders.

Those who are at risk should try to avoid outdoor activities if the air is smoky or wear either an N-95 mask or an N-100 mask — both are rated for filtering out smoke and fine particles. Scarves and surgical masks can’t filter out smoke so they don’t provide any protection. It is important to note that even the specialized masks don’t filter out gasses like carbon monoxide, so you should still be cautious when working or playing in smoky environments.

How can the fires be put out?

Putting out a fire seems simple. You just hit it with water or extinguishing chemicals, right? For massive wildfires that span hundreds or thousands of acres, it’s often more difficult. Firefighters can attack the edges of the fires on foot, but they are unable to make it toward the center of the fires, making them harder to extinguish. These inaccessible areas can be treated with water or chemicals dropped from planes or helicopters, but it can often be hard to target the best location — and even harder to make the drop.

Massive wildfires that span hundreds or thousands of acres. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Massive wildfires can span hundreds or thousands of acres. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Hydroseeding is a new type of fire control technology that is starting to become more popular. While it is traditionally used for operations such as planting, uniformly laying out seeds, fertilizer, lime, and other necessary nutrients all at once, the technology has also been used to help combat fires. Hydroseeding equipment was already in place in the Smoky Mountains to help reseed areas along the road, so all firefighters had to do was remove the seed and nutrient slurry and replace it with water. The machines move slowly, roughly 5 to 10 miles per hour, and were able to saturate areas to keep the fires from spreading.

This isn’t mainstream technology, at least not yet. Most hydroseeding equipment is custom made, so you’re not going to be able to order one online to protect your property from wildfires. However, the machines may become more common for park workers and emergency personnel to help keep these wildfires from jeopardizing lives and property in the future.

The natural processes

When it comes down to it, forests are meant to burn. This is a natural part of their life cycle, and some trees like conifers won’t even open their pinecones to drop seeds unless there is a wildfire. As we’ve spread out into the wilds of the United States, we’ve inadvertently placed ourselves in fire territory. The best thing we can do is to take as many steps as possible to prevent the spread of wildfires, while still allowing them to burn off underbrush and help make the beautiful forests of this country healthier.

Prescribed burns or controlled fires set and managed by park workers and emergency personnel can help improve forest health by removing the fuel that could potentially start a devastating wildfire if left unchecked.

Megan-Ray-Nichols

This article was written by Megan Ray Nichols. If you enjoyed this article, please visit her website Schooled by Science.

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