Western skies have been painted in red in this long, dry summer in the U.S. The National Interagency Fire Center reports at least 87 wildfires currently burning and the loss of more than 4.7 million acres — more than six times the area of Rhode Island — and at least 36 human lives (many are still missing).
Since the beginning of the year, California Fire Department reports nearly 7.900 wildfires that have burned over 3.3 million acres in California. Since August 15, there have been 25 fatalities and over 4,200 structures destroyed. (Cal Fire — https://www.fire.ca.gov/daily-wildfire-report/)
2020 is the largest wildfire season recorded for California, but it is not alone.
The State of Oregon is suffering as well, as over one million acres have been burned in a week, 10 deaths are reported and 22 people are still missing. A catastrophic scenario for a country where typically fires consume about 500,000 acres a year and now mobile morgues are required to handle the identification of the victims.
On the other side of the Pacific, Australia experienced its Black Summer, during the last bushfire season, in the summer between 2019 and 2020. As of 9 March 2020, the fires burn an estimated 46 million acres; 186,000 wildfires destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) (The Canberra Times) and killed at least 34 people.
Why so many fire events in 2020? Is it going just to be recorded among the most unfortunate years in history? “The odds are enormous against this being a coincidence.”
Global warming is accelerating. During the summer of 2020 Greenland’s ice sheet has melted to a point of no return, and so climate change is. Climate change is creating the conditions for the perfect storm, in terms of wildfires, for two main reasons. First, it is making summer season longer, dryer, and warmer, with extremely high temperatures especially in northern regions, like Oregon, or the Arctic, providing favourable conditions and fuel. Second, it increases the risk of lightning and wind storm, triggering and accelerating the fire. It is not by chance that many of the wildfires reported after mid-August in California followed two days of intense thunderstorms, caused by moisture left by the tail of the post-tropical storm Fausto. Since 1972, there has been an eightfold increase in the amount of land burned by summer forest fires. (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/10/airborne-health-concerns-emerge-from-california-wildfire/)
Massive fire control and people rescuing operations are taking place in the extraordinary framework linked to the ongoing pandemic, which forces firefighters to keep social distancing and requires “Mass Fever Screening” tents to be set up in California COVID-19 hotspots. Have a look at the fires thought the eyes of frontline firefighters ???? here.
Providing people with timely alerts and proper information has been set as a priority, but the goal has not been always reached, as CNBC reports some casualties related to misinformation, which caused the failure to evacuate.
During a wildfire, huge amounts of smoke and ashes are released. Airborne pollutants such as gases and particulate matter fill the air and can be carried by air flows for kilometers, affecting areas not touched by the fire but lying downwind. Smaller particles, in particular, pose a serious health risk, since they can travel down the respiratory system, avoiding the upper filters (nostrils and throat) and reaching the pulmonary tract. If they are small enough (e.g. below 1-micrometer diameter — around one eighth the average diameter of a red blood cell), they could also reach the bloodstream and, therefore, deposit in other organs, giving rise to inflammatory states and long-term adverse effects. In these days, in particular, airborne pollutants are regarded as a major risk for human health, as poor air quality has been associated with higher infection rate by SARS-COV2 (Borroo et al., 2020 — Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(15), 5573; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17155573). Moreover, a respiratory apparatus under extreme stress may set people at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms (https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/covid-19-california-fires-have-connection-here-s-how-fight-ncna1239892).
But it is not only wood which burns during a wildfire: most of the time infrastructures (e.g. electricity distribution lines), buildings, and vehicles are also destroyed by flames and, consequently, hazardous chemicals are generated or just released (e.g. asbestos from insulating materials; acid vapors from batteries, etc.).
Wildfires are not the only threat we are facing: many urban fires develop, mostly linked to accidents, putting the health of citizens at risk. For example, on 10th September a fire broke out in a tires warehouse in the free market in the port of Beirut, nearby the area where on the 4th of August a huge explosion devastated entire neighborhoods and caused the death of more than 200 people, as well as thousands of injured. Long-term effects on the health of citizens due to the release of hazardous substances deriving from the combustion are expected, but scarce information is currently available. Take a look at a video from a neighborhood in Oregon after the fire ???? here.
People living in the area touched by the fire are at risk not only during the event but also in view of long-term damage from exposure to airborne pollutants released during the wildfire.
One thing you can do is monitor air quality and stay in a safe space if possible.
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