Wildfires impact far more than just the scenery. They are a major contributor to many health and environmental hazards.
As of August, wildfires have burned more than 1.5 million acres in 13 states, with 7 in Utah alone. While wildfires are a part of nature, they are also increasing in frequency due to climate change (the earth’s temperature has risen 0.17 degrees each year since 1970) and are major contributors to greenhouse emissions.
We all know the haze from fires is hazardous, but do you know the different reasons why?
The simplest reason is that the size of the particulates released in wildfires. Whether it’s as small as carbon atoms or simply ash, many particulates released from wildfires are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, which can bypass nasal and throat filters and enter the lungs.
But fires also release a number of carbon forms and other molecules that are harmless alone but dangerous in high concentrations. Different forms of carbon as well as molecules known as ozone precursors stay low in the atmosphere, damaging our lungs and warming our climate.
3 Pollutants Wildfires Release
These emissions affect radiation, clouds, and climate on regional and even global scales.
What it is:
The most well known greenhouse gas released from burning material. It accounts for more than 80 percent of human contributions to global warming.
What it does: CO2 plays an important role in the carbon cycle by helping plant growth, too much atmospheric CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere through absorption in the same way that dust absorbs water.
Forests and land management in the United States is valuable not just for reducing emissions by preventing fires, but large, well managed forests also act as carbon sinks against an overabundance of the gas. High Co2 concentrations are a primary cause for increasingly hot summers, and your increasing AC bill.
What They Are:
Black carbon — created through high temperature combustion of chemical compounds and fossil fuels like coal or oil — and brown carbon produced by organic combustion of plant and animal matter.
What they do:
Both brown and black carbon influence sunlight absorption, which influences the upper atmosphere temperature. Brown carbon (independent of black carbon) contributes to 19 percent of atmospheric sunlight absorption, while black carbon contributes to 72 percent.
Black carbon, when suspended in the air, affects cloud formation. If deposited on snow or ice, its absorbent properties accelerate melting. Black carbon is estimated to be responsible for 30 percent of arctic warming.
Black carbon remains in the air for a month or less, which mitigates its impact to small regions. It also has a short lifetime overall, which makes it easy to mitigate by reducing carbon emissions overall.
Like black carbon, brown carbon influences atmospheric temperatures but is found at lower volumes. It is a relatively new area of climate study.
What they are:
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) the most common of which is Isoprene.
What they do:
Ozone precursors are responsible for a number of ailments. They can induce coughing and other respiratory irritations. They diminish lung function, making it more difficult to breath and reduce the ability to exercise. Lungs damaged by ozone precursors are more susceptible to respiratory infection, lung inflammation and scarring. Finally, it can trigger asthma aggravation due to increased sensitivity to allergens.
Isoprene specifically is linked to the formation of tropospheric ozone and haze due to its ability to bond with a number of free-radical compounds.
How You Can Help
While climate changes and shifts make it easier for fires to begin and sustain themselves, it’s important to note that the majority of wildfires are caused by human activity. In fact, a study of 1.5 million records from 1991 to 2012 revealed that humans are responsible for 84 percent of all wildfires. Here are three ways to avoid being one of “those people.” While dragging tow chains or fireworks contribute to fire starting, there are three significantly more common causes.
1. Manage your campfires
I love having a campfire as much as the next person, but I can also recognize the danger of a fire near dry brush in a hot temperature. Use established fire pits whenever available and pay attention to burn bans. If you must make a fire pit, ensure it’s properly insulated with rocks and has at least a 5-10 foot brush-clear radius. While fire regulations vary from area to area, you can reduce the risk of wildfires by keeping fuels at least 15 feet away from your pit and not burning during dry and windy conditions.
2. Control your burns
Most often caused by a brush burn getting out of control. Many states have their own regulations on prescribed burns. If you need to burn to clear brush on your property, check with local city and county governments (you can find Utah’s burn regulations here) for burn permits, and burn during wet seasons to reduce the risk of fire jumping outside the cordon.
3. Extinguish your cigarettes
The fact that cigarettes are tied to so many wildfires is just one more reason to kick the habit. But if you’re having trouble avoiding a cigarette, at least ensure it’s completely out. When you’re in the field, use a small sealed jar to stifle cigarettes and keep the wind from blowing them into dry brush.
You can help reduce them by simply being aware of easy causes. Keep a dead zone around your campfire and keep it burning low and out of the wind. Burn brush in small, manageable amounts. Put out cigarettes in jars or ashtrays. A number of small steps can dramatically improve not just your scenery, but your health as well.
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