As air pollution from Canadian wildfires drifts across North America, here’s everything you need to know about wildfires and their toxic smog
After a state of emergency was first declared at the beginning of May, 250 wildfires are now burning out of control in Canada and spreading pollution across North America. According to the Canadian government, around 100 million people are now experiencing poor equality as a result.
Yesterday, New York had the worst air quality of any city in the world, as an eerie orange haze descended on the city – earning comparisons to just about every sci-fi film ever released and the filter Hollywood uses when depicting Mexico or the Middle East. The smoke has already caused major disruption: two major League baseball games have been cancelled, flights have been grounded, people have been advised to stay inside unless absolutely necessary, and yesterday actress Jodie Comer had to walk off stage, ten minutes into a play, after having difficulty breathing. While the haze is expected to dissipate soon, in New York at least, the fires are still blazing with no end in sight.
Below, we look at why wildfires happen, the problems they cause, and whether wildfires will become a regular part of our shared future under the climate crisis.
HOW DO WILDFIRES START?
In this case, some of the fires were started by lightning striking forests, after an unusually dry and hot spring in Canada. But in general, fires are almost always started by human activity. Sometimes they occur when a managed fire spirals out of control (using fire to clear land and manage habitats is an age-old practice and one which can actually be helpful in preventing wildfires.) At other times, it’s plain-old human carelessness: people having ill-advised barbecues or firework displays; hunting irresponsibly, lighting campfires which they fail to distinguish or, in one infamous case, blowing up a smoke bomb during a gender reveal party. Increasingly, the US is prosecuting those responsible for ‘reckless arson’ which on the one hand, seems fair enough, but it would be better for the CEO of Shell to get arrested than a collection of random buffoons.
WHAT PROBLEMS DO WILDFIRES CAUSE?
Wildfires can be immediately lethal, but they also cause damage people's health in a more insidious way. In the short-term, exposure to wildfire smoke – which is a toxic combination of different gasses and breathable ‘particulate matters’ – can cause respiratory problems and exacerbate symptoms of a range of chronic conditions. In the long term, the effects are harder to predict: when you breathe in wildfire smoke, small particles can enter the bloodstream, causing DNA mutations and setting the stage for future health problems. What we do know is that air pollution is responsible for around 10 million deaths a year and has been linked to just about every health condition you could think of, from heart problems and cancer to suicide and mental illness. Some experts believe that air pollution from wildfires is significantly more dangerous than any other kind.
The effects of wildfire pollution can travel further than you might expect: this week, people as far south as Kentucky and Alabama are experiencing worsened air quality and, in general, the majority of people who suffer from wildfire pollution will live outside of the state in which the fire is burning. According to some estimates, wildfires are set to become the biggest source of pollution in the US.
The damage to the ecosystem is equally severe. Wildfires destroy habitats, which means they can pose an extinction risk for endangered species and have caused animal deaths at a truly staggering scale (in the Australian Bush fire of 2020, it’s estimated that three billion animals were harmed). There is a major economic impact too: crops are damaged, properties are destroyed, the agriculture and tourism industries are decimated, and people living in the affected areas experience a loss of income.
WHAT ROLE DOES CLIMATE CHANGE PLAY?
A major one. The climate crisis has increased the frequency of droughts and “fire weather”, which consists of high temperatures, low rainfall, low humidity and strong winds. These conditions create more “dry fuel” (such as dead leaves, twigs and branches) which increases the likelihood of fires breaking out. Wildfires have always been seasonal – mostly occurring in spring and summer – but fire seasons are getting longer. Across the globe, the number of days which are conducive to wildfires has increased significantly since 1979.
The relationship between climate change and wildfires is “mutually exacerbating”, according to a report by the UN. Wildfires are made worse by the climate crisis while at the same time contributing to it: the pollution they create is a major source of greenhouse gasses (one recent wildfire in Britain released the same volume of carbon as the annual emissions of 86,000 motorists) and they destroy important ecosystems such as rainforests and peatlands, which play a vital role in stabilising the climate.
The UN predicts that wildfires will become more frequent and intense, and that we can expect to see a global increase of around 14 per cent by 2030, 30 per cent by 2050 and 50 per cent by the end of the century. Even previously unaffected areas like the Arctic could become at risk.
DO WILDFIRES POSE A RISK IN THE UK?
Yes, and they are already happening with increasing frequency and severity. As in North America, wildfires which start in rural areas can have a serious impact on nearby cities. In 2018, for example, the Saddleworth Moor fire had a significant impact on the air quality in Manchester and the surrounding area. While no one was killed immediately, a later study attributed four deaths to the pollution it caused.
“There’s no doubt that the number of seasonal wildfires in the UK has been growing over the past decade and as we saw last summer, there is now a real threat to life and property as fires and toxic smoke spread from moors, arable land and grassy areas into villages, towns and cities,” Dr Stuart Hodkinson, an urban geographer at the University of Leeds and expert in wildfires, tells Dazed.
“The UK’s traditionally damp climate has helped to reduce the wildfire risk in the past, but as our climate gets hotter and drier, our fuel load will grow,” Dr Hodkinson continues. “If you speak to international wildfire experts, they will tell you the same thing – the UK is going to have a huge problem in the near future.” What’s even more concerning is that the government does not seem prepared to face this challenge.
As for what we can do to tackle the problem, Dr Hodkison believes we have to get the balance right between ecological conservation and land management, properly resource the fire service and educate the public about how to prevent wildfires from taking place in the first place.