The Fourth of July conjures up images of family gatherings, backyard BBQ’s, and of course…. Fireworks!! But, if you’re living on the West Coast, it may be time to rethink this summer tradition. Last month, more than 100 fire scientists co-signed an article requesting that people on the West Coast avoid fireworks completely this year.
Why are fireworks so risky this summer?
A record-setting drought followed by a historic heat wave has dried out vegetation across the region, creating an extremely volatile situation. It only takes a small spark to set off a fire that can destroy thousands of acres. And, more than 80 percent of the time, those sparks are caused by people.
Unfortunately, the Fourth of July has traditionally been a day when many of these fires were ignited. In fact, a study on U.S. fire ignitions and the potential threat to homes showed that from 1992 to 2015, humans started more U.S. wildfires on July 4 than on any other day of the year. Many of these fires occurred in residential areas, threatening people’s homes and lives.
And it’s not just fireworks causing the destruction. Many Western counties and forests are banning all campfires, smoking outdoors and target shooting.
Are wildfires really getting more common and more destructive?
Wildfire risk depends on a number of factors, including temperature, soil moisture, and the presence of trees, shrubs, and other potential fuel. All these factors are directly or indirectly tied to climate change. Because of the rising temperatures of climate change, more organic material has dried in forests, doubling the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the West. Warmer, drier conditions also contribute to the spread of the mountain pine beetle and other insects that can weaken or kill trees, building up the fuels in a forest.
And, the problem is only getting worse.
Projections show that, for the Western US, an average annual 1 degree C temperature increase would increase the median burned area per year as much as 600 percent in some types of forests.
Once the fire starts, warmer temperatures and drier conditions can help fires spread and make them harder to put out.
Do we need to be concerned with wildfires if we’re not on the West Coast?
Unfortunately, we all need to be worried about wildfires.
Wildfire smoke is made of gases and microscopic particles from vegetation, metals, and other building materials that have been burnt. Of all the dangerous pollutants released by wildfires, the most hazardous to your health are PM 2.5 and ultrafine particles. PM2.5, along with the even tinier ultrafine particles, are composed of a mixture of solid and liquid particles that are suspended in the air. PM2.5 particles are easily inhaled and are able to penetrate deep into your respiratory system, causing an array of serious health issues.
Because of their tiny size, PM2.5 can also travel very far, potentially damaging the health of people across states. In fact, California wildfire smoke has been detected 3,000 miles away in New York City.
Exposure to these fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath. Longer term exposure can cause heart and lung disease, cognitive issues, and even decrease our lifespan.
How can we protect ourselves from wildfire smoke?
Monitor Local Smoke Warnings
Even if you think that your home is far enough away from the wildfires to be of concern, it’s always important to check your local air quality and pay attention to any smoke warnings on the local news. AirNow.gov provides free air quality monitoring each day.
Keep windows and doors closed
Most of the time indoor air actually contains two to five times more pollutants than outdoor air. But, during a wildfire, the situation changes. Keeping windows and doors shut tightly can minimize the smoke that enters your home. It also helps to limit the number of times you enter and exit your home.
Use the right air conditioner
Unfortunately, wildfires often coincide with blistering heat waves. When running an AC, make sure the filter is clean and that any “fresh air” settings that bring in air from the outdoors are disabled. Don’t use ACs that rely on outdoor air.
Avoid activities that cause more indoor pollution
Wildfire smoke can make the air quality in your home plummet. If possible, avoid other pollution-causing activities like smoking cigarettes, using gas, propane, or wood-burning stoves and furnaces, spraying aerosol products, frying or broiling food, and burning candles or incense.
Purchase an air purifier with a True HEPA filter.
The particles in wildfire smoke are generally between 0.4 and 0.7 microns. True-HEPA air filters are exceptionally good at removing particles of that size from the air. In fact, the EPA recommends that residents in areas vulnerable to wildfires purchase an air purifier before a fire emergency occurs. Because wildfire smoke is made up of many different hazardous pollutants, be sure to look for high-quality air purifiers that are equipped to deal with gasses and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
What are some alternatives to fireworks this year?
As climate change continues to disrupt our lives, we will need to find new traditions that are safer and more environmentally friendly. There are many options to brighten up your Fourth of July gatherings. Laser light projectors, outdoor movies, confetti cannons, silly string, and glow sticks can all be safe and fun ways to celebrate.