While the coronavirus and its devastating effects on people and economies worldwide were unfortunately the top 2020 stories, the massive impact of western wildfires can’t be ignored. It was catastrophic.
The National Interagency Fire Center’s western states tally shows a record 8.6 million acres were incinerated in 2020 compared with 4.6 million acres in 2019.
In Washington just over 700,000 acres were burned; however, California and Oregon were not as fortunate. By comparison, a combined 5.7 million acres were destroyed. Fires incinerated small towns and threatened metropolitan areas surrounding Portland.
Thick smoke hampered fire suppression. Firefighters were not only overwhelmed by the number and magnitude of fires, but had to contend with the rapidly spreading coronavirus. Gov. Jay Inslee announced in June that fires could take up to 25 percent longer to suppress due to COVID-19-related precautions and crew safety measures.
According to Stanford University researchers, choking smoke from the record fires also disproportionately targeted people over age 65. They compared air pollution readings during California’s fires with increased death rates and emergency room visits and concluded at least 1,200 “excess deaths” occurred from Aug. 1 to Sept. 10 in California along with about 4,800 extra emergency room visits.
At the same time, air quality was intolerable in the Sierra, the Sacramento Valley and parts of Southern California, where it reached 10 to 15 times the federal health standard.
Quartz.com climate reporter Tim McDonnell wrote in September the sprawling wildfires in California and Oregon produced record amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, according to satellite data. In both states, 2020 wildfire emissions at the peak of the fires season surpassed those typically released annually by their natural gas and coal power plants and cars, trucks, airplanes and trains.
McDonnell added in California, cumulative Co2 emissions from wildfires for the year as of Sept. 13 reached about 83 million metric tons, according to data from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. That’s the highest level since the beginning of the Centre’s records in 2003.
Mammoth forest fires have been around for centuries. For example, in a single week in September 1902, the Yacolt Burn engulfed more than a half million acres and killed 56 people in the Columbia River Gorge and around Mt. St. Helens. The choking smoke was so thick that ships on the Columbia River were forced to navigate by compass and the street lights in Seattle, 160 miles to the north, glowed at noon.
Between 2003 and 2012, BC’s forest fires emitted 256 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. In the previous decade, healthy trees actually absorbed 441 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Two years ago, according to Russia's Federal Forestry Agency, more than 7 million acres of forest burned across six different Siberian and Far East regions. It all added up to an area about the size of Greece. The smoke from over 400 forest fires in Siberia drifted across Alaska and portions of the west coast of Canada, according to NASA.
Looking ahead to 2021, those we elect need to change wildland management policies. They not only need to address fire suppression, but wildfire prevention. Those changes will not come easily because they are a shift away from letting nature have its way unimpeded.
Without the removal of volatile fuels such as dead trees and dense dry ground vegetation, large wildfires will continue. As part of reducing atmospheric Co2 and increasing public health and safety, we need forest management that includes tree replanting and thinning, especially in fire prone areas.
It will be expensive, but income can be generated from logging and funds paid by polluters to offset Co2 emissions.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.