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IMPLICATIONS OF THE 2021 WILDFIRE SEASON

Aman Barekzai, Emergency Management, Health, and Hazards (EMH2) Team

Week of Monday, July 19, 2021


Summit Trail Fire[1]


As reported by the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 10.5% more wildfires in 2021 than the average of the previous decade.[2] With the United States (US) at National Preparedness Level 5, the highest level of fire activity, emergency management personnel are predicting this year’s wildfire season will continue to break records. For instance, California wildfires are currently outpacing the previous year’s record-breaking wildfire season.[3] As a result, the wildfires can have immediate and long-term effects on human health, the environment, and emergency services, emphasizing the need to reevaluate wildfire risk management to ensure wildfire season is effectively monitored, educating the public, and fuel mitigation.

According to the US Drought Monitor, several states across the west are experiencing extreme and exceptional drought conditions.[4] As evidenced by the earlier start to wildfire season in the western US this year, ongoing climate change has had a detrimental impact on wildfires, placing residents at risk. The combination of a historic drought, excessive heat waves, and dry conditions have primed various areas to burn more intensely and rapidly. With additional heat and dry conditions expected in the coming months, this threat is highly likely to continue over the rest of the 2021 wildfire season. There is a likelihood that the western US could experience a more intense wildfire season this year and in the coming years. This threat also has the potential to become a widespread humanitarian crisis across the western US. Since 75% of the western US is experiencing drought-like conditions, water reservoir levels are at historic lows.[5] There is a low-medium probability that low water reservoir levels could result in a humanitarian crisis, which could lead to a significant impact on human life, property, and the environment. It is likely the continued drought will continue to impact water reservoir levels, which would likely have significant consequences such as limited resources, stretched aid, and emergency personnel.


According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2021, the number of unhealthy air quality days is more than double the number in the last two years.[6] Alongside the ongoing impacts of climate change and its influence on wildfires, another implication of the 2021 wildfire season is the immediate and long-term effects on public health. With forests and vegetation left desiccated due to drought conditions, wildfires will be able to ignite more easily and spread further, producing large amounts of smoke. It is highly likely that as large wildfires continue to spread, there will be a significant spike in hospitalizations among the youth and elderly due to respiratory distress from smoke inhalation. This is likely to have a negative impact on health systems across the western US, as respiratory distress can lead to coughing, which can increase the spread of COVID-19 as lung damage from smoke leaves individuals more susceptible to respiratory infections. This is critical because health systems may receive an influx of patients with similar symptoms, as well as those with burns or related injuries, which may place the healthcare system at risk of collapsing. It is highly likely this will strain emergency services, deplete critical resources such as oxygen and ventilators, and place stress on healthcare workers, compromising the quality of care they are providing due to the rising cases of COVID-19 across the US.


Although there is not sufficient research and data on the long-term impacts of wildfire smoke exposure, researchers indicate that prolonged smoke exposure can lead to decreased lung functions, weakened immune systems, and higher rates of illness.[7] This has the potential to place a large majority of frontline emergency personnel and residents living in fire-prone zones at risk of compromising their health. This may become a problem because this can lead to emergency personnel such as firefighters prioritizing which fires to fight, whether that be ones closer to communities and infrastructure versus fires in remote areas. Additionally, potential health risks may deter individuals interested in pursuing a career in firefighting. This has the potential to decrease supply for wildland firefighters, which can lead to a limited number of workers that will not be adequately prepared for the peak of wildfire season. This could also impact wildland firefighters by decreasing morale as they endure pressure since there are a limited number of workers. According to Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, the federal firefighting force is 25% below normal levels for the 2021 wildfire season.[8] This has the potential to exacerbate wildfire season, placing more lives and property at risk.


While the dangers of the 2021 wildfire season on nearby communities continue to increase, wildfires also impact the environment by making the soil vulnerable to nutrient loss due to erosion, permanently altering the texture of the soil.[9] This has the potential to become a problem because once the soil fails to absorb water, it can accelerate post-fire debris flow and flooding, which can directly impact communities as seen in the 2019 Museum Fire flooding caused by water runoff in Flagstaff, Arizona.[10] It is highly likely that post-fire, communities, residents, and emergency personnel could experience an increase in debris flow in burned, hilly areas. Wildfires also impact the environment through emissions of large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming and a never-ending cycle of hotter years and disastrous wildfire seasons. It is highly likely that as wildfires worsen, global warming will become accelerated which could lead to rising temperatures. Rising temperatures, drier conditions, and low levels of water could exacerbate wildfires and heavily impact the welfare of humans and animals.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) and the Emergency Management, Health, and Hazards (EMH2) Team recommend that the Federal Government should invest more in the US Forest Service budget. The US Forest Service budget has received a significant budget cut in its hazardous fuel reduction sector, which plays a critical role in mitigating wildfires. Although the Federal Government has increased funding for 2022, it is not enough to combat the growing threat of wildfires and is still below pre-pandemic levels. The Federal Government should also invest more in federal firefighters since their demand has significantly decreased due to health risks and low pay. By boosting the federal wage for firefighters, it could boost morale and increase demand for firefighters, allowing emergency personnel to effectively fight against wildfires. CTG and the EMH2 Team also recommend that intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) invest in rebuilding campaigns for residents and businesses owners who have lost their homes and businesses to wildfires. By doing so, this can mitigate the threat of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and reduce the chance of COVID-19 cluster outbreaks occurring amid the growing threat of the Delta variant. Lastly, the EMH2 Team advises emergency management wildfire protocols to be reviewed to ensure wildfires are being fought efficiently and effectively.


CTG works to detect, deter, and defeat terrorism around the world by analyzing worldwide data, searching for hidden information, developing knowledge, and providing solutions. The EMH2 Team works to bring awareness to the negative impacts of emergencies, health threats, global hazards, and related terrorist activity. It is essential for the EMH2 and the NORTHCOM teams to monitor the 2021 wildfire season occurring throughout the western US because it informs Agencies, Organizations, and Companies (AOCs) of the current and future challenges the regional and international community can endure during future wildfire seasons. The EMH2 and the NORTHCOM teams will continue to observe the compounding implications of the 2021 wildfire season and its impact on human health, the environment, and emergency services.

__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Summit Trail Fire” by National Interagency Fire Center licensed under Public Domain

[2] National Fire News, National Interagency Fire Center, July 2021, https://www.nifc.gov/fire-information/nfn

[3] California's wildfires are outpacing last year's record-breaking season, CBS News, July 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/california-wildfires-outpacing-last-fire-season-record/

[4] Megadrought ‘taxing’ US water reservoirs and fuelling wildfires, Al Jazeera, July 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/17/megadrought-taxing-us-water-reservoirs-and-fueling-wildfires

[5] Ibid.

[6] EXPLAINER: As wildfire smoke spreads, who’s at risk?, Associated Press, July 2021, https://apnews.com/article/canada-science-health-environment-and-nature-coronavirus-pandemic-22599eded88b808881b86c22505136a5

[7] Smoky Skies Are The New Normal. Are They Making Us Sick?, NPR, October 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/10/09/907099868/smokey-skies-are-the-new-normal-are-they-making-us-sick

[8] Low pay pushes some federal firefighters to find work elsewhere, MarketPlace, July 2021, https://www.marketplace.org/2021/07/14/low-pay-pushes-some-federal-firefighters-to-find-work-elsewhere/

[9] How Does Wildfire Impact Soil Health?, FireSafe Sonoma, https://www.firesafesonoma.org/how-does-wildfire-impact-soil-health/

[10] As Ducey issued emergency declaration, flooding pushed Flagstaff to forefront of climate debate, AZ Daily Sun, July 2021, https://azdailysun.com/news/local/as-ducey-issued-emergency-declaration-flooding-pushed-flagstaff-to-forefront-of-climate-debate/article_81a3f3e0-5f21-5d6f-b194-7d2cd351efce.html

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