Wildfires in Canada are breaking records this year, burning more than 20 million acres so far. One effect has been days of haze and unhealthy air in Pennsylvania. And the fire season is not over.
WPSU’s Anne Danahy spoke with fire ecology expert Erica Smithwick about the fires and what role climate change is playing. Smithwick is a distinguished professor of geography and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State and a member of Science Moms.
LISTEN to their conversation
Anne Danahy: Erica Smithwick, thank you so much for talking with us.
Erica Smithwick: It’s my pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Anne Danahy: There was one recent headline that says we should quote expect a hot smoky summer in much of America and that we better get used to it. Is that true? Should we expect to see these hazy days in summers from now on?
Erica Smithwick: Well, unfortunately, the answer is yes. We can’t predict that that’s going to happen every year. We certainly hope that’s not the case. But the evidence is very clear that we’re likely to see more extreme drying events, more extreme droughts like we’ve seen this year and that have caused and are mostly responsible for the Canadian wildfires, and those are likely to increase in the future.
So we’re likely to see the conditions that caused these fires occur more frequently. Unfortunately, that could mean more smoke for us here in the eastern part of the United States.
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Anne Danahy: So something that we may have to adjust to seeing. We’re used to reading about it, and maybe in California, for example.
Erica Smithwick: Oh, that’s right. We used to think that fire was a Western problem. It happened over there, right? And now it’s really on our doorstep. We have to learn to live with fire.
I’ve been working with fire managers here in Pennsylvania for a long time. We’ve been starting to put controlled or managed fire on the landscape for multiple reasons to promote habitat, promote forests that are more healthy, and to reduce fire risk. But what we found in talking with communities in the East is that we’re just not used to thinking about fire. And I think we’re going to have to change that moving forward.
Anne Danahy: Why are we in Pennsylvania and neighboring states seeing so much of the wildfire haze from Canada this year? And maybe in future years, too? Is it more wildfires, that they’re more intense? Or is there some combination of factors?
Erica Smithwick: Well, the recipe for fires is the same everywhere on Earth. The ingredients are the same. You need fuels, you need ignition, and you need the right weather conditions, and the balance of those changes in different places all over the world.
But we know in Canada, the years with the largest burn area are associated with these drier conditions. And in particular, those drier conditions have occurred in the eastern part of Canada, which is relatively unusual for many of the Canadian forests.
So we know they have burned in the past. But we haven’t seen this amount of burning in this area for the past few decades. In fact, we’ve nearly doubled the area burned in Canada since around 1970. So the fires are becoming more severe, they’re burning larger areas and are causing more harm to communities obviously, and there are also the weather patterns such that the circulation is causing the smoke to be carried down into our part of the country.
Anne Danahy: And as you mentioned, you’ve studied wildfires; you’ve done a lot of work with them. And they’re not inherently bad, right? They have a purpose in the ecosystem.
Erica Smithwick: That’s right. I mean, for decades, colleagues and I have been talking about the natural role of fire in many systems, and the fact that humans have actually disrupted that by preventing fire, we call it fire suppression, you know, putting out fires, because we think that they’re bad, right? We think that they cause a lot of harm. And, you know, in a short time period, they do kill trees, they do kill some animals. But over a long period of time, they actually restore ecosystems in many parts of the world.
We’re seeing larger burns, more severe burns, obviously causing more damage, and these fires are occurring in very remote areas. So they’re very hard to control.
I work in Yellowstone National Park, where the trees have cones that actually require the heat of intense fires to release the seeds. And without those fires, the trees actually don’t regenerate. So you need the fire to regenerate the forest. But that natural balance is really tipping when we start to think about the conditions caused by climate change, that are causing the fires to come at a faster tempo, and with more severity than we’ve seen in the past 10,000 years, really, especially in the Yellowstone context.
Anne Danahy: So scientists often say that when it comes to climate change, you can’t say that climate change is causing this specific event or this specific temperature, but it’s increasing the odds and the intensity. It sounds like you’re saying that that’s what’s happening here.
Erica Smithwick: That’s right. As far as we understand there. You know, fire is part of the ecosystems in Canada, fires have occurred in Canada for millennia. But in the past, those have largely been driven by natural causes. And so when we have had higher periods of drought, there have been large fire years, but those periods of time when we have the most drying are increasing. And so what we’re seeing now over the past few decades, is that those conditions are causing more extreme fire area.
The number of fires has actually been going slightly down over the past few decades, which is sort of interesting, but the intensity of the fires that do occur is going way up. So we’re seeing larger burns, more severe burns, obviously causing more damage, and these fires are occurring in very remote areas. So they’re very hard to control. And it costs billions of dollars actually in a regular fire year, even in the United States, to control the fires, the wildfires that we do have.
Anne Danahy: On a larger scale, it’s too late to change the wildfire outlook for this year, but what do you think leaders in the United States and Canada, internationally should be doing to plan for and address future wildfire seasons?
Erica Smithwick: The first thing is that people should speak to their decision makers in their community, politicians or other leaders, to say that this matters to me to speak up to say that I don’t like it when my kids are inhaling the smoke.
What we know from the climate science at the international level is that every ounce of warming that we stop right now will avoid those most devastating extreme events. So if we can prevent another point, 1 degree Celsius warming that actually matters. And that matters, in particular, not maybe even for the mean, but for those extreme events. And those are the extreme events that cause fire. So stopping the burning of fossil fuels is critical for this.
Now, I understand that fossil fuels are incredibly important to our economy. They’re really highly dense, efficient fuel. They have a role in society in many places, but we cannot be dependent on them like we are right now. We have to transition away to cleaner energy because those solutions exist. And then also to be able to mitigate and adapt to those specific fire events.
You asked me about wildfire policies specifically. And in that space, we can do a few things depending on where you live. In Pennsylvania, for example, putting more prescribed fire on the landscape is a way to reduce fuels. That’s one thing we can do, and encouraging policies that promote that to occur safely. And communities promoting community education around the role of fire as a natural part of our ecosystem, and the role of controlled burning.
And also to create more livable communities so that we’re learning to live with fire. We’re providing locations where there are two ways out, for example, and some communities that I’ve worked in, there’s only one way out of a community.
In the short term, we probably do have to invest in fire suppression and make sure we have enough resources there to fight these fires. But we’re not going to be able to put out all the fires; we’re just not. So we have to be thinking more proactively. We can’t just be reacting to those wildfires when they come. We have to think about how are we managing forests and communities to live with fire in a more stable way.
Erica Smithwick is a distinguished professor of geography and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State.