Lightning storms, record-breaking heatwaves and bouts of howling winds have worked as a catalyst for wildfires that have ravaged millions of acres of land along the western US.

Orange skies, soot-choked air and decades-old woodland up in smoke. 

These are the scenes along the western United States, with several fires bulldozing 3 million acres in California, and another 1.6 million in Oregon and Washington, an area roughly the size of Fiji. Thousands of homes have been destroyed and dozens of lives cut short. 

“It's almost been like in another planet, you walk out and immediately your lungs and eyes just start tearing up,” Professor Christopher Dicus, an expert of wildfire management at California polytechnic, told TRT World

Even Europe has reported signs of smoke bearing down on its continent, while satellite data from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service showed that the wildfires are "tens to hundreds of times more intense" than the recent average.

The fires are unprecedented; a potent cocktail of mismanaged forests, high temperatures, drought, lightning storms and unstable power lines. But as Dicus is quick to point out, it’s not even peak season yet. That comes in October and November, when angry, strong winds can carry a light spark. 

Here is what you need to know to understand why these fires are striking in scope and intensity. 

A home burns during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires in the Berry Creek area of unincorporated Butte County, California on September 9, 2020.
A home burns during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires in the Berry Creek area of unincorporated Butte County, California on September 9, 2020. (AFP)

An ‘epidemic’ of trees"

First, we need to dispel the notion that wildfires are bad. They are not always harmful but are key to balancing a healthy ecosystem. 

“It serves a necessary critical role to so many ecosystems,” Dicus says. 

As forest ecologist, Paul Hessberg, explains, forests more than 150 years ago were “a constantly evolving patchwork of open and closed-canopy forests of all ages”, quite unlike the blanket of trees we see straddling swathes of landscapes today. These patchy forests allowed relatively smaller, mild fires to regularly cleanse the woodland of dead vegetation without spreading widely. 

Native Americans knew this and they harnessed it, using it to manage and shape the landscape for agriculture. 

But then humans interfered with the natural flow of things, funnelling efforts into putting out all fires after a devastating wildfire in 1910.

This gradually led to the build-up of dead vegetation, more flammable than live vegetation. 

The suppression of routine necessary fires led to the build-up over decades of highly flammable dead material to become deadly fuel with the potential to intensify fires. 

“When fires occurred they generally did not have a lot of fuel to carry the fire and so they were low-intensity fires that burned along the surface. What we've done is by putting out all the natural fires we have caused the fuel to accumulate and now we have a really dangerous situation,” research scientist and UCLA Professor Jon Keeley tells TRT World

All this unbridled vegetation can catch fire unchecked and spread with no barren land to stop it or slow it down. Hessberg calls the situation with America’s forests “the current epidemic of trees”. 

So yes, US President Donald Trump’s statement that bad fire management is to blame for these blazes, may actually have some truth to it.

Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, California, September 9, 2020.
Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, California, September 9, 2020. (AP)

“Perfect storm:” Conditions ripe for fire 

Claims made by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, that the climate crisis has something to do with it, is not completely wrong either. 

All this fuel rotting in the undergrowth of forests is dangerous enough, but the looming phenomenon of climate change eggs it on. Conditions during summer months are already hot and dry, but the climate crisis has exacerbated it. That, along with persistent drought, is killing parched, sickly trees and eventually seeping moisture out of dead vegetation, creating a tinderbox that only needs a spark.

This can come in the form of lightning storms, humans accidents, arson or felled electricity posts. Electricity company, Pacific Gas and Electric, admitted that it was the cause of the 2018 California campfire, after warnings about faulty equipment were ignored.

“More and more people are living in California and the more people you put in, the more chance there are for ignitions either by accident or arson,” Dicus says. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has also limited how firefighters can battle today’s blazes. 

“Covid-19 has put a lot of restrictions on how close people can be and that has reduced the efficiency of the firefighters,” Keeley notes. 

All of this has created the perfect storm of conditions for megafires to flare up, Keeley and Quinn-Davidson say. 

“This situation now is a combination of bad forest management that allowed fuels to accumulate, an extreme drought that occurred in this past decade that killed a lot of vegetation plus impacts of global warming,” Keeley says.

Firefighters from Las Vegas set ablaze brush and trees during a firing operation near the Obenchain Fire in Butte Falls, Oregon, US, September 15, 2020
Firefighters from Las Vegas set ablaze brush and trees during a firing operation near the Obenchain Fire in Butte Falls, Oregon, US, September 15, 2020 (Reuters)

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t 

One way of controlling these fires and sloughing areas of dead vegetation is through prescribed, or controlled, fires that are intentionally lit. 

“At times of the year when the temperatures are not too high and the winds are not too high and it’s relatively safe to light a fire, we would go into the understory of the forest, we would light a fire and burn off as much of the dead vegetation as possible,” Keeley explains.

But the problem with prescribed fires is that it is a costly and unfeasible endeavour, and residents living in areas which require this cleansing are not keen on a potential smoke situation. 

They are not the only ones who might be terrified of the flames. As Director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, tells TRT World it is hard to find people who are skilled with fire. 

“There is a real art to it so it takes people who have done a lot of it and the fact is that not a lot of people have done a lot of prescribed burning”, Quinn-Davidson says. 

“We have capacity issues, we have skills issues, we have comfort, the actual practitioners are not comfortable because we in the west don't have that skill around this practice.”

Quinn-Davidson advocates a holistic approach to combating wildfires, involving the use of prescribed fires in areas that can be controlled, thinning out vegetation to regulate fire flow and to allow wildfires to do their thing and restore forest structure.  

“Wildfire is going to be part of the solution, we know we are not going to be able to treat all the areas that need to be treated with prescribed fire alone,” she says. 

“We're going to have to have some areas where wildfires burn and wildfires do a lot of good work.”

As megafires rage across the western US, is there a case for optimism? Quinn-Davidson is hopeful due to increased attention on the issue. 

She says the shift we need is going to come from a tipping point, admitting that “it might get worse before it gets better.” 

Source: TRT World