Deadly Wildfires Reminiscent of an Apocalypse

Charlize Du Preez investigates the source of the recent deadly fires while reflecting on the wildfires near her town.

At the start of the summer, New York appeared like a scene straight out of an apocalypse or sci-fi movie. Smoke from wildfires in eastern Canada blanketed the sky, turning the sun orange and worsening the air quality. Many areas in Europe, including Italy and Greece, - specifically the island of Rhodes - have been left scorched and in ruins. More recently, Lahaina in Maui, Hawaii, was devastated by a wildfire fuelled by the winds of Hurricane Dora. At least 115 people lost their lives to the fire, and many are still unaccounted for. The burning of Lahaina and the death of its people is a travesty of what the  historic town represents. Once the capital kingdom of Hawaii, now a harrowing scene

In Canada alone, more than 15 million hectares (150,000 square kilometres) have burned due to 6,118 wildfires. This is slightly smaller than two Ireland's - Ireland being around 84,000 square kilometres. The amount of land burned far surpassed the previous record in Canada of 7.6 million hectares in 1989. Nearly 200,000 Canadians have been placed under evacuation order this summer and fire seasons are only expected to increase in length and severity.

So why exactly are the number and impact of wildfires increasing? This all comes down to the conditions that cause a fire. Fire needs three things in order to survive: fuel (such as trees), oxygen and a spark to ignite it. Due to climate change, increasingly warm temperatures and heat waves are occurring more and more frequently; this causes arid air and forests to become dry and flammable. For example, Canada saw abnormally high temperatures early in the spring and summer, creating the perfect conditions for wildfires and leading to an early fire season. Additionally, strong winds are often involved and fuel the fire with oxygen and spread it by flinging burning embers. Such strong winds due to Hurricane Dora made the Lahaina fire devastating as it spread incredibly quickly with little chance to warn the population.

While wildfires can destroy both homes and agriculture, the smoke produced from wildfires also has many detrimental effects on the environment and people’s health. The smoke that wildfires produce is a mix of air pollutants, including ozone (O3) and adds to air pollution. Particulate matter is another air pollutant and has detrimental effects on health. Premature death and diseases of the lungs, heart, liver and many other organs are exacerbated or caused by the inhalation or other contact with particulate matter. Firefighters and other emergency response workers are also affected by burns, injuries and smoke inhalation. 

The aftermath of wildfires has dire consequences. For instance, the soil becomes exposed and can erode due to the loss of vegetation. Thus, water runoff can cause flooding, and the sediments can move downstream, damage houses, and end up in reservoirs, which endangers community water supplies. When a wildfire burns through towns and cities, the fire can do much more than burn down houses. Burning houses and other human-made products can release many dangerous chemicals, including asbestos, from the buildings. These chemicals are then in the smoke and the fire ash. Inhaling the smoke can have many health risks, including increased incidence of cancer, seen in those often exposed to smoke like firefighters. The toxic ash can remain long after the fire has already been burnt out and can continue to pose a health risk. Overheated plastic pipes can also contaminate drinking water by leaching chemicals into the water. 

When a wildfire burns through towns and cities, the fire can do much more than burn down houses. 

So, how can wildfires be prevented? Two of the leading causes of wildfires are lightning and people. As nothing can be done regarding lightning, a focus is put on teaching people wildfire prevention, such as proper campfire maintenance and ensuring it is extinguished, maintaining vehicles and equipment to prevent sparks, proper cigarette disposal and instituting fire bans. Additionally, one can prepare the land to prevent wildfires by using controlled burning. Burning forest debris under appropriate conditions and cutting trees to create fire breaks can slow the spread of fires. Fire towers and websites or call centres to report fires allow prompt response to fires once they are ignited. International aid helps the countries overburdened by the fires manage.

It is unfortunate that wildfires and skies full of smoke are becoming the new normal for many people. Now, increasingly, summer is synonymous with heat waves and smoke-choked air. As a Canadian, I have personally been placed under evacuation alert many times. It is nerve-racking to be aware of a fire slowly encroaching upon the home you have lived in for most of your life. Almost every year, there is a wildfire in the near vicinity of my hometown and every year, one wonders if this is the year your town will burn down. This year, the St. Mary’s River wildfire, which grew to 4,000 hectares (40 square kilometres), burned around 20 km away from my home, and several houses burned. When you live near wildfires, everyone is affected, whether through being ordered to evacuate, one’s home burning down, or smoke thick enough to look like fog. 

Wildfire preparedness and prevention and climate action to slow the increasing effects of climate change that cause the conditions that fuel wildfires are urgently needed if we wish to live in a world that is no longer on fire.