Skip the fireworks this record-dry July 4th – Watts Up With That?

[a little paternalism to start out Friday~cr]


Philip Higuera, University of Montana; Alexander L. Metcalf, University of Montana; Dave McWethy, Montana State University, and Jennifer Balch, University of Colorado Boulder

The heat wave that hit the northwestern United States and Canada has broken records with temperatures 30 degrees Fahrenheit or more above normal. Given the drought that has already hit the west, the intense heat has helped suck even more moisture from millions of acres of forest and grassland, bringing dead vegetation to record levels of dryness in many regions and raising the risk of fire to the highest category .

With this combination of extreme drought, heat and dry vegetation, one spark is enough to ignite wildfire.

Because of this, over 150 fire department scientists, including us, along with fire officers across the west are urging people to skip the July 4th fireworks and avoid other activities that could start a fire.

People start most forest fires on July 4th

For decades, one of the most noticeable and predictable patterns of behavior in the western United States was when people accidentally set fire to July 4th. From 1992 to 2015, more than 7,000 wildfires broke out in the United States on July 4th – most wildfires started on any day of the year. And most of them are near houses.

In this year’s tinder-dry meadows and parched forests, sparks from anything – a cigarette, a campfire, a power line, even a mower knife hitting a rock – could ignite deadly wildfire.

Year round, people extend the fire season by starting fires when and where lightning is rare. And it is precisely these fires that pose the greatest threat to life and homes: over 95% of the forest fires that threatened homes in the past few decades were started by people. Far from human development – beyond the “wildland-urban interface” – the majority of the area burned by forest fires in the west is still caused by lightning strikes.

Whether ignited by humans or lightning, man-made climate change makes it easier to start fires and grow bigger due to increasingly warm and dry conditions. The western US saw these consequences during the record fire season of 2020 – and the fire season of 2021 has the ingredients that are just as devastating.

So stay safe

We’ve spent years studying the causes and effects of forest fires in North America and around the world, and working with managers and citizens to imagine how best to adapt to our increasingly flammable world. We’ve outlined strategies for dealing with combustible landscapes and thought carefully about how communities can be more resilient to forest fires.

When asked, “What can we do?” Many of our proposals require long-term investment and political will. But there are things you can do right now to make a difference and potentially save lives.

Remove combustible materials from all buildings in your home, such as dried leaves and needles, gas and propane gas containers, and firewood. Clean your gutters. When pulling a trailer, be careful not to let the chains hang so low that they hit the pavement and cause a spark. If you need to mow a lawn, do so in the cooler, wetter hours of the morning to prevent accidental sparks from igniting fires in dry grass. Do not drop cigarette butts on the floor.

Buildings and car destroyed by fire.

On this July 4th, skip fireworks and bonfires – watch a laser show instead, do s’mores in the microwave, and party by keeping the summer skies smoke-free for as long as possible.

Many municipalities prohibit personal and public fireworks and voluntarily cancel fireworks displays due to forest fires.

Adaptation to increasingly unknown terrain

The fingerprints of man-made climate change are everywhere in the current drought, recent heat waves, and another record breaking fire season. Research shows how man-made climate change increases the frequency and magnitude of extreme events, including drought, forest fires, and even individual extreme fire seasons.

To adapt to longer, more intense fire seasons, some traditions and activities need to be reconsidered. As you celebrate this July 4th stay safe and help the firefighters, your neighbors, and yourself by preventing accidental forest fires.

This article was updated on July 1, 2021, and more scientists joined in.

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Philip Higuera, Professor of Fire Ecology and Paleoecology, University of Montana; Alexander L. Metcalf, Associate Professor of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, University of Montana; Dave McWethy, Associate Professor of Geosciences, Montana State University; and Jennifer Balch, Associate Professor of Geography and Director, Earth Lab, University of Colorado Boulder

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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