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article imageWestern North America drought conditions fuel deadly wildfires

By Karen Graham     Jul 31, 2018 in Environment
Hot and dry, with no rain in sight - This has been the weather forecast for much of the western coast of North America for the past several weeks, worsening drought-like conditions leading to hundreds of wildfires.
It comes as no surprise that the province has issued a drought warning for the entire British Columbia coast after an extremely dry spring and little precipitation. The advisory spans an area from the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands to Haida Gwaii and the North Coast.
In Washington state, part of Southwest Washington is now classified as being in severe drought, while the remainder of the state is either in moderate drought status or abnormally dry. The state is monitoring drought conditions in regard to water resources. There is not a water emergency at this time.
A severe drought that already had covered much of Eastern Oregon crossed over the Cascades into the Willamette Valley and as far south as Douglas County. The percentage of the state in a severe drought more than doubled to 55 percent from 25 percent this past week.
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North American Drought Monitor
The heat on the western coast of the continent is a dry heat, unlike the damp, humid heat felt in the southeastern U.S. and up into eastern Canada. And the low humidity, coupled with the extremely dry conditions make a perfect setting for dry-lightning strikes. This type of lightning is the most common natural cause of wildfires, besides the fires that are set on purpose.
Impact of drought conditions are wide-ranging
Most people would say the biggest danger associated with drought is forest fires, and they would be right. In British Columbia on Tuesday, BC Wildfire Service fire information officer Ryan Turcot said that in the past 24 hours, 57 new wildfires have started, with the majority caused by lightning.
“Nothing but hot and dry weather across the province, that really started to ramp up the fire danger rating across the province,” he said, adding, "It could be another interesting week just in terms of the implications weather has on the wildfire situation."
In the U.S., the National Interagency Fire Center is reporting that as of Tuesday, hot and dry weather conditions continue to fuel fire activity throughout the country. Four new large fires were reported and six were contained. Besides the four new fires, there are currently 95 active wildfires that are not contained, burning from Alaska, with 15, to Wyoming, with four fires.
So far this year active fires have burned 1,279,641 acres (517,852 hectares). But here is an astounding bit of information - From January 1, 2018, to July 31, 2018, there have been 37,591 wildfires in the U.S., with almost all of them in the west. The fires have burned 4,772,098 acres (1,931,199 hectares).
Not only do wildfires burn millions of acres, they also destroy homes, businesses, and other structures, not to mention taking the lives of humans and domestic and wild animals. Looking at the bigger picture, most people don't take into consideration how long it will take for a family, business or community to rebound financially.
Many people don't realize that nearly half of the full community costs of wildfires are paid at the local community level by government agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and homeowners. These costs include long-term damages such as landscape rehabilitation, lost business and tax revenues, degraded ecosystem services, depreciated property values, and impacts to tourism and recreation.
State and federal agencies are responsible for paying the bulk of suppression costs, even though they comprise about 9 percent of the total cost of a wildfire. Things such as relief aid, evacuation services, and home and property loss comprise around 35 percent. And the related costs from long-term damage that take years to fully take into account make up fully 65 percent of the costs.
Home foundations and skeletons of possesions are all that remain in parts of a residential neighborh...
Home foundations and skeletons of possesions are all that remain in parts of a residential neighborhood destroyed by a wildfire on May 7, 2016 in Fort McMurray, Canada
Scott Olson, Getty/AFP
The end result?
We haven't even mentioned the agricultural losses, water shortages, infrastructure loss, and costs to a state's economy, nor have we taken into account the nationwide affect wildfires can have - including higher prices at the grocery store, increased health care costs and shortages of goods and services.
If we add one more factor, climate change into the picture, it is not pretty. Dry, hot weather is going to become a way of life and forests will continue to burn. Climate change is influencing the frequency, intensity, and duration of wildfires and will likely exacerbate wildfire costs in the future.
It may sound corny - but we are supposed to be the stewards of this planet, and there are things we can do to reduce wildfire risks and improve community safety. One big plus would be to reinstate proper forest management. Another idea would be to require fire-resistant building materials for homes, and better community planning to reduce the risk of building in areas prone to fires.
More about Drought, North America, West coast, Wildfires, hot and dry