Western US face high risks for 2021 fire season

After a devastating 2020 fire season, the Western United States is poised to face another tough season in the coming months due to severe drought conditions. Residents across the Western region should be aware of the coming threats and plan accordingly.

2020 Recap

Over 10 million acres of land was burned by wildfires across the United States in 2020, which was the worst in recorded history.

  • In California, 5 of the 6 largest wildfires in history took place in 2020, with the largest fire in state history burning over 1 million acres in August 2020.
  • Colorado saw 3 of the largest wildfires in state history in 2020.
  • Washington saw over 700,000 acres of land burned last year, which was the 2nd most in state history.
  • Oregon saw a record 4,009 homes destroyed by wildfire in 2020. From 2015 – 2019, a total of 93 homes were lost to wildfire.

Dry conditions continue into 2021

The risks for another devastating fire season this year is high for the Western United States. The conditions on the ground has not changed since the previous year, leading to dry vegetation and land that can create wildfires.

The main issue is that a major drought has continued into this year. Under normal conditions, winter months would bring snow and rain to the Western States. However, due to changes in the climate, California and the entire western region are facing a severe water shortage and dry conditions that can lead to large wildfires.

At the beginning of April, the amount of precipitation in California was 70 percent less than normal. The Sacramento Valley region usually receives around 85% of it’s water supply by April 1. This year, the region has only received 43% of it’s water supply thus far, with streams flowing at less than 10% of it’s normal flow.

These drought conditions are expected to continue throughout the spring and into the summer, which significantly increases the threat of wildfires in the summer months.

Wildfires are already popping up

The drought conditions across the Western and Southwestern United States has already led to wildfires burning earlier in the year. As NBC News reported, “the National Interagency Fire Center recorded an increase in fire activity across the United States in March, especially in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions. Above-normal fire activity is expected to continue across the norther Plains through April and into early May.”

As of May 1, the fires have already started.

Wildfires in South Dakota in March led to the evacuation of 400 homes and the closure of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

200 homes in Arizona were evacuated due to a 1,400 acres fire in late April.

Three evacuation centers were opened up in New Mexico after a wildlife fire burned at least 12,000 acres in New Mexico in April.

As the New York Times reported, these early fires are not a good sign for the upcoming summer months.

Economic Impacts from Wildfires:

Here are the economic damages from wildfires in the United States, according to the Yale Climate Connections.

  • $24 billion in 2017.
  • $22 billion in 2018.
  • $16.5 billion in 2020. Three separate wildfires in California and one in Oregon caused over $1 billion in damages. 12 wildfires across the western states and Colorado each caused over $100 million in direct loss.
  • Combining the direct and indirect losses, the total impact of the 2018 wildfire season on California was nearly $150 billion.

Death tolls from Wildfires:

Yale also reported that the directed death toll from the 2020 fires was at least 43, but mentioned that the indirect death toll from inhalation of wildfire smoke was likely in the thousands. A study estimated that between 1,200 and 3,000 excess deaths occurred in California among people 65 and older between August 1 and September 10 form wildfire smoke-related causes.

In an average year, wildfire smoke is likely responsible for 5,000 to 15,000 deaths in the United States.

Recommendations:

  • Listen to your local officials and media sources. Follow them on social media and be sure that you can quickly access information about fires in your areas. If evacuations or shelter in place orders are given, you want to be sure that you and your family quickly receive that information.
  • Know your evacuation routes, restock your go-bag, and create defensible space around your home. The National Weather Service has a great resource on preparing for wildfires.
  • Even if you are in the cities or suburbs and your home is not at risk of being burned down, you must still take steps to protect yourself due to the dangers of wildfire smoke.
  • The best way to protect yourself is to protect yourself is to stay indoors with the windows and doors closed.
  • In addition to staying inside and away from the smoke, purchasing a HEPA filter to clean the air in your room is considered a good investment. Here is an article by the New York Times on how to choose an air filter.
  • Please note: If you are thinking about purchasing an air filter, order it as soon as you decide on a model. There were reports that many were out of stock due to the demand from Western states last year. In addition, HEPA filters are recommended in helping to filter Covid-19 out of the air, so there is already a big demand for filters and purifiers. Along with the problems in the global supply chain, it would be best to order your air filter as soon as possible.
  • Surgical masks and cloths masks DO NOT protect you from wildfire smoke. If you need to travel outside, use a N-95 or N-100 respirator mask.
  • When driving, be sure to set your air conditioner to recycle air to keep the smoke outside of your vehicle.
  • Take precautions regarding power supplies and backups if you are in California. The state’s power provider has previously shut down power due customers overwhelming the system and to prevent wildfires. Keep a portable power bank fully charged in order to keep your cellphone working. Turn off notifications and switch your phone to the low-power mode to preserve your battery life.

It will be a challenging summer for the Western United States

The fire season will be just as challenging as it was in 2020. Now is the time to take precautions and to prepare your homes and businesses for the wildfires and disruptions to come.

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