Avoid the fireworks this independence day, our firefighters need a break
Forget the fireworks this year. It is just too hot and dry right now in much of the western United States. From 1992 to 2015, more than 7,000 man-made forest fires broke out on July 4.
There are three ingredients needed for forest fires: climate, fuels, and ignitions. We all three change. And we have put tens of millions of homes at risk. We have essentially built a nightmare in flammable landscapes, made more vulnerable by climate change. The fires are very sensitive to heating, just a little bit leads to a lot more burns. We have seen at least an increase of 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the western United States, since the late 1800s. This rise in temperature has contributed to drier fuels and a doubling of the forests that have burned in the United States. west since the mid-1980s.
In a context of global warming, people start forest fires. People provide the ignitions for 84 percent of our nation’s forest fires. And even worse, we start the vast majority of forest fires that threaten our own homes. At the forest-urban interface, where homes mingle with flammable vegetation, we start over 97 percent of the fires that threaten our neighborhoods and cities.
The ignition ingredient is part of the wildfire problem we can fix right now. It will be harder and much more difficult to curb our changing climate and the consequent increase in forest fires. We have some stuck warming that is expected to increase wildfires over the next several decades, especially in the forests of the western United States. But we can take care of the igniting piece of this puzzle. We need Smokey Bear to visit the suburbs. There are many ways to provide the sparks that start wildfires, for example, burning debris, campfires, power lines, yard equipment, and fireworks.
Some towns and cities are canceling fireworks, others should. Las Vegas, Tuscon, San Francisco, Fresno, Spokane, Bend, Bismarck and surrounding towns are just a few of the places in the vast expanses of extreme or exceptional drought conditions right now.
We need to rethink the way we celebrate July 4th. I love fireworks as much as everyone else. But I’m not going to do something that burns my neighbor’s house or my whole town. Is it an American thing to do? We can celebrate in new ways, like having a laser light show hosted by your local town or making microwave s’mores this year. We need to look at statewide bans. Massachusetts is the only state to have banned the sale and use of consumer fireworks. Western states that get much, much drier and hotter during the summer should also consider statewide bans.
However, reducing man-made fires is only part of what we need to do to build resilience to increasing forest fires. We need to rethink the way we build in flammable landscapes. We have national floodplain maps to reduce risk, but we need national fire maps that better guide development.
We ask too much of our firefighters. They’re not celebrating July 4th – they’re bracing for the ensuing wildfires. They are underpaid, overworked and exhausted. More than 150 fire specialists have sounded the alarm bells. Let’s give our firefighters a break this year and forget about the fireworks.
Jennifer Balch, Ph.D., is a fire researcher, associate professor of geography and director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder.