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Q&A: Are Wildfires Really That Bad?

July 14, 2016

In California, nine different wildfires have destroyed roughly 70,000 acres. They are just 40 percent contained.

A fire that cropped up in Lovell Canyon near Las Vegas has consumed roughly 300–400 acres. With thunderstorms likely over the next few days, firefighters fear lightning could spark a new blaze.

And according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a little more than two million acres have burned so far this year in the United States as a result of wildfires.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Stephen Mason, a curatorial assistant of Entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, researches fires and its impacts on forest communities. Also a doctoral student in Drexel’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, Mason explained that wildfires are an integral part of the cycle of environments’ lives and humans’ zeal to contain and extinguish them quickly may actually be adding to their intensity. He explained here.

Have wildfires gotten worse in recent years?

Wildfires have gotten much more frequent and more intense in recent years.

There are many reasons for this, but the main one is climate change. With climate change, droughts have been happening a lot more, meaning there is less rain. Less rain equals drier landscapes. And dried landscapes make it easier for wildfires to occur, thus more frequent.

When it comes to intensity, for decades now, when wildfires occur, humans put them out as soon as possible (or at least try to). Since people try to put out wildfires so quickly, the dead leaf duff (plant litter) builds up over time, which is something fire ecologists call “fuel load.” Without wildfires or when wildfires are put out as fast as possible, the fuel load builds up and increases. With an increased fuel load, fires that hit those areas will burn a lot hotter, a lot faster and be a lot bigger, making them much more intense.

Keep reading at the Drexel News Blog