The science behind the West Coast fires
A collection of research and insights from Stanford experts on wildfires' links to climate change, the health impacts of smoke, and promising strategies for preventing huge blazes and mitigating risks.
Wildfires torched more than five million acres in California, Oregon and Washington in 2020. They killed dozens of people, prompted evacuation orders for hundreds of thousands more and spewed enough toxin-laden smoke to make air conditions hazardous for millions.
In 2021, wildfires in California alone burned more than 1.7 million acres before the end of August, destroying thousands of structures and forcing mass evacuations.
Tendrils of smoke from fires in the western United States have drifted as far as Europe. As environmental economist Marshall Burke put it in a virtual panel discussion hosted in September 2020 by Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, “This is not just a U.S. West Coast issue, this is a nationwide issue.”
As the fires burn, they are unlocking huge amounts of carbon dioxide from soils and plants and launching it into the atmosphere.
Six of the seven largest fires on the modern record in California ignited in 2020 or 2021, and most of the largest fires in the state’s history have occurred in the past two decades. Scientists say global warming and decades of fire suppression have helped lay the groundwork for the devastating blazes. One study by Stanford researchers estimated as much as 20 million acres in California would benefit from vegetation thinning or prescribed burns. Another found that the risk of extreme wildfire conditions during autumn has more than doubled across California over the past four decades, and human-caused global warming has made the changes more likely.
This collection covers how scientists are unraveling the factors that contribute to wildfire risk, understanding their impacts and developing solutions. Scroll down for wildfire research news and insights related to climate change, health impacts, prevention and mitigation, prediction and modeling and more.
Last updated: August 31, 2021
Climate change has its ‘thumb on the scale’ of extreme fire
“Humans are ingenious at managing climate risk, but our systems are built around the historical climate,” climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh told The Washington Post. “Systems that were built for the old climate are being stressed in a new way.”
(Image credit: Sheila Sund / Flickr)
Immune markers and pollutant levels in the blood indicate wildfire smoke may be more harmful to children’s health than smoke from a controlled burn.
What does smoke inhalation do to my health? What’s the evidence that these are caused by climate change? Here is how some Stanford experts answer and continue to tackle these complex concerns.
California’s massive wildfires bring a host of health concerns for vulnerable populations, firefighters and others. Kari Nadeau and Mary Prunicki of Stanford’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research discuss related threats, preparedness and ongoing research.
"Only certain masks are effective during wildfires, while a range of face coverings may help prevent coronavirus transmission," Stanford researchers write in Environmental Research Letters. Drawing on human behavior studies and past responses to epidemics and wildfire smoke, the scientists recommend ways to communicate mask-use guidance more effectively.
As wildfires become more frequent due to climate change, the increasing amounts of smoke may harm Americans nearly as much as rising temperatures, according to a working paper by Stanford environmental economist Marshall Burke and colleagues. “We hadn’t even thought of that as a key part of the climate impact in this country,” Burke told Bloomberg.
Marshall Burke, an economist at Stanford, has found that, across California, as the number of smoke days has risen over the past 15 years, it has begun to reverse some of the gains that the state had made in cleaning up its air from conventional sources of pollution.
Wildfire smoke will be one of the most widely felt health impacts of climate change throughout the country, but U.S. clean air regulations are not equipped to deal with it. Stanford experts discuss the causes and impacts of wildfire activity and its rapid acceleration in the American West.
Smoke from wildfires – particularly those that burn manmade structures – can significantly increase the amount of hazardous toxic metals present in the air, sending up plumes that can travel for miles, a new study from the California Air Resources Board has suggested. "No one is protected," said Mary Prunicki of Stanford’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research.
"In talking about risks and policy prescriptions, we need to separate out wildfires at the wildland-urban interface – those that put people and communities at most risk – from fires that historically have burned through our remote forestlands," said Deborah Sivas, Director of Stanford’s Environmental Law Clinic.
"Successful wildfire preparedness begins with a clear strategy and accountability for outcomes," writes Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.
"As fires burn with greater magnitude and frequency, the cost of fighting them is increasingly borne by money earmarked for prevention," writes Bill Lane Center for the American West writer in residence Felicity Barringer.
"We need programs that emphasize and support herd immunity from fires," Rebecca Miller, a PhD student in the Emmet Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, told Mic. Rebuilding efforts after a fire, she added, ought to recognize that once-burned neighborhoods are likely to burn again.
Fire burned the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif. in October 2017. (Image credit: Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Cosse / California National Guard)
Stanford researchers have developed a deep-learning model that maps fuel moisture levels in fine detail across 12 western states, opening a door for better fire predictions.