What We Learned From This Year's Wildfire Season
By Cathy Carroll
In 2020, some of the largest, most destructive wildfires in history swept through millions of acres in the Western United States. Thousands of people lost their homes and businesses, and dozens died as record winds fanned the flames across drought-stricken land. The millions of residents who didn't have to evacuate their homes found themselves trapped inside for days, taking refuge against toxic smoke that turned the sky an apocalyptic orange.
The causes behind this devastation are somewhat complex, but two major factors are clear: climate change and the consequences of antiquated forest management practices. For nearly a century, U.S. Forest Service policy focused on putting out forest fires immediately. That policy has evolved, but we are now left with the immense challenge of removing the trees, brush and grasses that have gone unchecked, and which offer fuel for this new breed of mega-fire.
Globally, the climate crisis is a standout cause, with carbon emissions rising and greenhouse gas levels reaching record highs, according to the United in Science 2020 report from several of the world's leading science organizations. Climate impact continues to wreak havoc on our planet, ushering in worsening wildfires, floods and storms, rising food insecurity and economic loss, according to the United Nations.
Lessons Learned—Now What?
In the midst of these facts, however, there is hope, experts say, if we act now. Not only can ordinary citizens make changes to combat environmental stress change but we can also take steps to protect ourselves, our families and businesses from catastrophic loss from wildfire.
New Stanford University research suggests that this year's disastrous wildfires may shrink partisan differences about climate change strategies. Aggressive policies and laws are crucial to saving the planet, but individuals can make a vital impact, especially when corporations and elected officials notice those actions, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
Even if you've managed to remain unscathed by wildfire so far, being unprepared for a natural disaster could leave you vulnerable, no matter where you live. It's essential to minimize the potential impact on your home, office, family, employees and operations.
3 Tips for How to Prepare for a Wildfire
Among other resources, the National Fire Protection Association says to:
- Prepare your property
Clear leaves and debris from gutters, eaves, porches and decks to keep embers from setting fire to your home. Remove dry vegetation and other items from under your deck, porch and within 10 feet of your home. Remove firewood stacks, propane tanks and other combustibles within 30 feet of your home, including garages and sheds.
Prune tree branches 6 to 10 feet from the ground to prevent a wildfire from spreading. Keep your lawn watered, cut and cleared of cuttings.
- Make an emergency plan
Keep an emergency supply kit in a safe spot. Include important documents, medicine and identification. Create an emergency evacuation plan and practice it with everyone in your home. Plan two ways out of your neighborhood and designate a meeting place.
- Make contact with your community
Contact your local government, or homeowner association if you have one, to determine if you live in a high wildfire risk area and what related regulations to follow. Talk to your local fire department about how to prepare, when to evacuate and what response you and your neighbors could expect from firefighters. Find out how local agencies use prescribed fire to manage your area's lands.
As we've seen wildfires devastate small towns and big cities around the globe this year, it's clear that we are at a crucial point in the fight against climate change. Taking whatever steps you can will compel those around you to act, and your children will respect and admire you for it, too. In the meantime, be sure to protect them and your home from catastrophe.