Wildfires and poor air quality are two trends that are unfortunately continuing around the globe and particularly here in North America, so much so that there is an entire map that shows both the Air Quality Index for different areas and where the smoke is coming from. While most of the United States and Canada are seeing good to moderate air quality, there are still numerous wildfires occurring and if the past few years have been any indication, there’s still at least another month plus of dry weather.
The Pacific Northwest
Here in the Pacific Northwest, there have been several wildfires over the last month or so. One of the more recent was the Sourdough Fire in the North Cascades, which was ignited on July 29th because of a lightning strike and closed State Route 20/North Cascades Highway near Newhalem, Washington. Other fires have included the Golden Fire in Oregon’s Klamath County, Newell Road Fire in Washington’s Klickitat County, and the Bedrock Fire in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. Alaska is also dealing with wildfires, with the total acres growing significantly in the last week. As of Monday, August 7th, there was a total of 220,000 acres of wildfires in the state, causing multiple dangerous/unhealthy air quality alerts for parts of the state. Most of the wildfires in the state are in interior Alaska and these areas make fire suppression difficult. Those fighting the fires face challenges like a lack of roads, exposure to strong winds, and spongy tussocks that make walking difficult.
Just today (August 8th, 2023), the wildfire across western Maui grew and in addition to completely devastating the historic town of Lahaina, six people have died and many more are hospitalized for smoke inhalation, smoke, or other injuries. There have been reports of some people having to jump into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames and being rescued from the water. In addition to hospitalizations and rescues, many have now evacuated the area and so much has been lost to the fire. The exact cause of the wildfire has not been determined but it was thanks to a number of factors, like high winds, low humidity, and dry vegetation, that the fire spread so far and fast. Through heightened natural disasters like wildfires, climate change has and continues to absolutely devastate communities, homes, and habitats around the world.
If you want and are able to help those affected by the wildfires on Maui, there are a few places to start, like the Nā ‘Āikane O Maui Cultural Center featured below. You can also help the Lahaina Hawaiian Immersion school and families and/or the Maui Strong Fund from the Hawai’i Community Foundation. One absolutely free thing any and everyone can do though? Don’t be a tourist and visit Hawai’i, especially right now. Native Hawai’ians have been asking people for years to not visit for so, so many reasons and even if you visit an island other than Maui right now, you are still putting a strain on the state’s resources and complicating its ability to contain and recover from these fires. Over a year ago, Native Hawaiian Lily Hi’ilani Okimura explained how tourism is incredibly harmful to Hawai’i and Native Hawai’ians, saying in particular that:
“A lot of tourists treat our land like it’s some theme park… They will ignore warning signs, fenced-off areas, and ‘no trespassing’ signs, which can cause damage to our environment like erosion, vandalism, and pollution. … For example, tourists will try to go near and touch monk seals and turtles at the beach, despite having MULTIPLE signs at our beaches warning people that these are endangered species and touching them will result in them paying a fine.
… When people say they should be able to visit Hawai’i because ‘it’s part of the United States,’ I tell them they’re missing the point. Sure, you have the ‘right’ to travel wherever you want, but does that make it right? Especially if the Indigenous people and other residents are asking visitors not to come due to a worldwide pandemic, our limited resources, and because our tourism industry exploits our people and culture. What does that say about you to disregard all of this because ‘What about my vacation?’”
Nā ‘Āikane O Maui Cultural Center has burnt down. It was a gathering place for Cultural Groups & Kīpuka for our Lāhui – everyone was fed & no one was ever charged. Cultural artifacts, and a safe gathering and educational space for our people has been lost. #LahainaFire pic.twitter.com/FPUg2ReimT
— Oʻahu Water Protectors (@oahuWP) August 9, 2023
The Mojave Desert
The Mojave Desert covers roughly 25,000 square miles, making it larger than the five smallest states combined. It spans four different states in the American Southwest (California, southwestern Utah, southern Nevada, and northwestern Arizona) and has some of the most amazing landscapes. Like any desert, the Mojave is teeming with life and has a multitude of floral and fauna species, like several tarantulae and scorpion species, 200+ endemic plants, and the federally listed desert tortoise.
Additionally, the Mojave has two of the most iconic national parks in the United States, Joshua Tree and Death Valley. But these two parks, and the Mojave Desert at large, are currently experiencing massive droughts, wildfires, and other climate change-related activities. While Death Valley has long been one of the hottest places on the planet, the area hit 132°F/55°C last month, making it one of the few times a temperature at or above 130°F was recorded on Earth. This high heat is part of a long-term trend, which is seeing more and more record-breaking temperatures.
The York Fire along the California-Nevada border has grown to 94,000 acres and has drastically changed the landscape for the worse. Part of that damage? The Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. These iconic trees are not built to recover from extensive wildfire damage and there are parts of the park that are now scattered with blackened soil and scraggly Joshua Tree stumps. Debra Hughson, the deputy superintendent for the Mojave National Preserve, recently said that
“The ecosystem is changing. It’s not going to be what it used to be. It’s going to be something new and different. … Overall it will be a more impoverished ecosystem, less biodiversity, less nice overall. But this is a pattern that we’re seeing globally with fairly global rapid change. We’re just part of it.”
The Canadian wildfires have been making headlines this year, as many wildfires had covered parts of the eastern United States in unhealthy smoke for a significant period of time. According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, there are over 1,100 active fires and more than 13.3 million hectares have been burned this year alone (as of 8/9/2023). Out of all the currently active fires, roughly 65% are classified as “Out of Control” and roughly 67% are in the three western provinces (British Columbia, Yukon, and Northwest Territories).
While there have been plenty of wildfires started by natural occurrences like lightning strikes this year, it’s still incredibly important to practice fire safety and respect the many burn bans around the United States and Canada. There are, unfortunately, many other wildfires that aren’t listed here and given the recent trends over the last few years, these massive wildfires will likely continue as the planet continues to warm. Drastic systemic and individual change needs to occur for any hope of preventing these trends from becoming the “new normal”.