Extreme heat is fueling wildfires across the western United States as temperatures broil large swaths of the country.
In the U.S. Southwest, crews are battling nearly 100 active blazes with record-high temperatures and low humidity feeding major fires in Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, and California, according to data compiled by the LA Times.
This comes as a record-shattering heat wave smothers the Pacific Northwest, sending temperatures well into the triple digits. The heat is linked to hundreds of deaths across Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, as reported by the New York Times.
In California, fires have burned more than 31,000 acres since the start of the season, with 18 blazes actively burning across the state, according to Cal Fire. The largest is the Lava Fire in Northern California’s Siskiyou County, which has burned nearly 20,000 acres and forced more than 3,500 residents to evacuate. On Thursday, the blaze was 19% contained.
The fire is burning in a rural area where health care resources are limited.
“From the area where the fire is, the closest primary center is about 50 miles to the north and 65 miles south,” said Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief’s Vice President of Research and Analysis. For residents, that leaves few options for health care, particularly if those health centers shut down. “It’s just a problem of low density,” said Schroeder. And should the power be shut-off to prevent wildfire expansion, the situation becomes more complex.
Without electricity, people lose access to life-sustaining electronic medical equipment and air conditioning amid the stifling heat. “If people lose power…you get this stack of problems,” said Schroeder. Wildfires can also bring about health concerns related to smoke and particulate inhalation, health needs resulting from displacement and evacuations, and interruption of access to health providers and life-sustaining prescription medications needed to keep people out of local emergency rooms.
While the Lava Fire has consumed fire crews for days, it’s unlikely to be the last major fire in California this season. 95% of the state is under severe drought conditions, and one-third is experiencing exceptional drought conditions, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Agency. These conditions dry out forests and shrubbery, making them ideal tinder for fires. “The underlying fuel conditions are really at all-time dangerous levels,” said Schroeder.
This comes on the heels of California’s worst wildfire season to date, when, last year, more than 4.2 million acres burned across the state. While a significant amount of brush and forests were used up as ignition, there’s still plenty of fuel left to burn. Schroeder warns: “It’s true that the places that were burned last year are unlikely to burn again but there is still a very large portion of California that did not burn last year.”
For emergency responders, preparing for a more extreme wildfire season can be a moving target.
It’s difficult to predict exactly when and where these fires will erupt, since areas that have recently burned are not likely to burn again. “We shouldn’t being putting preparedness resources in places that burned last year because that’s probably not going to be the places at highest risk,” said Schroeder. “You don’t want to fight the last war.”
Direct Relief’s Response
To target supplies where they’re needed most, Direct Relief’s Research and Analysis team has developed a dashboard mapping which communities are most vulnerable to the impacts of wildfires. This information is used by the organization’s Emergency Response Team to pre-position kits of emergency medical supplies at health facilities serving California’s highest-risk communities.
In addition, the organization is collaborating with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health through CrisisReady to create a health system resilience mapper projecting the impact of fires and power outages on populations in California. The tool looks at the vulnerability of the health system to power outages and wildfires and provides real-time population movement during evacuations.
Direct Relief is also funding a data project spearheaded by Macro-eyes and the California Primary Care Association to model power resilience throughout the state of California. The tool will be used to determine which health centers are equipped with back-up power—a critical resource when providing care during a public safety power shut-off. The information will be used to steer resources, such as solar batteries and generators, towards health facilities most vulnerable during power shut-off events.
As climate change fuels more extreme wildfire seasons, Direct Relief will continue to invest in data-driven solutions to increase the resiliency of health systems and equip health facilities with the supplies they need to care for patients during and after wildfires.