Across the western United States, some 100 large fires (and numerous smaller fires) are burning or have burned more than 4.7 million hectares (1.9 million acres), according to NASA. This year is shaping up to be one of the worst fire years with some of the largest fires ever recorded, and it could continue to get worse.
Despite some of the largest fires having been contained over the weekend, six new large fires were reported in Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon – and the weather is not showing any sign of reprieve. As NASA reports, warmer than average temperatures paired with diurnal winds and marginal overnight humidity make it unlikely that the fires will die down soon. Plus, a severe weather front could bring more lightning strikes – and with them, more fire starts – in already dry states like Montana and Wyoming.
Earlier this month, President Trump laid blame for California’s wildfire crisis on the state’s environmental policy, tweeting government officials “must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North” to be used for “fires, farming and everything else,” a claim that has been widely disputed and ridiculed.
According to the US Forest Service, the intense 2018 fire season has less to do with how water is being used, and more to do with a climate that isn’t producing as much as it should. A lack of rainfall during the summer months was one of the biggest contributors to forest areas being burned by wildfire, according to a new multi-agency study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The number and size of large wildfires have increased dramatically in the western United States during the past three decades,” the agency said in a statement. “Contrary to previous understanding, new research shows that significant declines in summer precipitation and lengthening dry spells during summer are major drivers of the increase in fire activity."
Eight people have died this year in California wildfires alone with hundreds of homes reduced to smoldering ashes, while tens of thousands have been evacuated across the country – and the fires don’t just affect people nearby. A Washington, DC radio station reported smoke from California’s fires had drifted some 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) reaching the DC Metro area, and a time-lapse gif released by NASA shows just how that smoke moves across the west to east jet stream, polluting air over each region as it spreads.
According to NASA, smoke from any type of wildfire is dangerous and burning materials that contain carbon gives off a mixture of particles and chemicals. All wildfire smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter (or soot) but can also contain chemicals found in whatever is being burned, including acid gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).