Wildfires were the ‘big polluters’ of 2020 | Don Brunell

COVID-19 might have done a number on the economy, but wildfires took more than 8.6 million acres of land this last year.

Don Brunell

While the coronavirus and its devastating effects on people and economies worldwide were unfortunately the top 2020 stories, the massive impact of western wildfires can’t be ignored. It was catastrophic.

The National Interagency Fire Center’s western states tally shows a record 8.6 million acres were incinerated in 2020 compared with 4.6 million acres in 2019.

In Washington just over 700,000 acres were burned; however, California and Oregon were not as fortunate. By comparison, a combined 5.7 million acres were destroyed. Fires incinerated small towns and threatened metropolitan areas surrounding Portland.

Thick smoke hampered fire suppression. Firefighters were not only overwhelmed by the number and magnitude of fires, but had to contend with the rapidly spreading coronavirus. Gov. Jay Inslee announced in June that fires could take up to 25 percent longer to suppress due to COVID-19-related precautions and crew safety.

According to Stanford University researchers, choking smoke from the record fires also disproportionately targeted people over age 65. They compared air pollution readings during California’s fires with increased death rates and emergency room visits and concluded at least 1,200 “excess deaths” occurred from Aug. 1 to Sept. 10 in California along with about 4,800 extra emergency room visits.

At the same time, air quality was intolerable in the Sierra, the Sacramento Valley and parts of Southern California, where it reached 10 to 15 times the federal health standard.

Quartz.com climate reporter, Tim McDonnell wrote in September the sprawling wildfires in California and Oregon produced record amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, according to satellite data. In both states, 2020 wildfire emissions at the peak of the fires season surpassed those typically released annually by their natural gas and coal power plants and cars, trucks, airplanes and trains.

McDonnell added in California, cumulative CO2 emissions from wildfires for the year as of Sept. 13 reached about 83 million metric tons, according to data from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. That’s the highest level since the beginning of the Centre’s records in 2003.

Mammoth forest fires have been around for centuries. For example, in a single week in September 1902, the Yacolt Burn engulfed more than a half million acres and killed 56 people in the Columbia River Gorge and around Mt. St. Helens. The choking smoke was so thick that ships on the Columbia River were forced to navigate by compass and the street lights in Seattle, 160 miles to the north, glowed at noon.

Between 2003 and 2012, BC’s forest fires emitted 256 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. In the previous decade, healthy trees actually absorbed 441 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Two years ago, according to Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency, more than 7 million acres of forest burned across six different Siberian and Far East regions. It all added up to an area about the size of Greece. The smoke from over 400 forest fires in Siberia drifted across Alaska and portions of the west coast of Canada, according to NASA.

Looking ahead to 2021, those we elect need to change wildland management policies. They not only need to address fire suppression, but wildfire prevention. Those changes will not come easily because they are a shift away from letting nature have its way unimpeded.

Without the removal of volatile fuels such as dead trees and dense dry ground vegetation, large wildfires will continue. As part of reducing atmospheric CO2 and increasing public health and safety, we must have forest management policies which include tree replanting and thinning especially in fire prone areas.

It will be expensive but income can be generated from logging and funds paid by polluters to offset CO2 emissions.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@courierherald.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.courierherald.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 500 words or less.

More in Business

Khun 9 at Dwight Garrett park. Photo by Ray Miller-Still
Khun 9 Thai food truck visits Enumclaw, Buckley

The food truck ventured outside Seattle when the pandemic hit and office buildings closed.

2021 Lexus RX 350L. Courtesy photo
Car review: 2021 Lexus RX 350L

By Larry Lark, contributor It’s always a good day when a Lexus… Continue reading

2021 Chevrolet Blazer. Courtesy photo
Car review: 2021 Chevrolet Blazer

By Larry Lark, contributor When it comes to certain car models they… Continue reading

Health Bar owner Heidi Hawkinson preparing a mango smoothie. Photo by Ray Miller-Still
The Health Bar opens on Enumclaw’s Blake Street

The new “fast food” joint serves smoothies and salads for health-conscious eaters.

Don Brunell
‘Work from home’ is here to stay | Brunell

Working from home jumped 12,000 percent last year, and 42 percent of the labor force is working from home full time.

The Cadillac CT4 is designed to appeal to a new generation of Cadillac buyers with its athletic design and astute driving dynamics. Courtesy photo
Car review: 2020 Cadillac CT4 Premium Luxury

By Larry Lark, contributor With apologies to Oldsmobile, “the 2020 CT4 Premium… Continue reading

2021 Mercedes E-350 luxury sedan. Courtesy photo
Car review: 2021 Mercedes E-350 luxury sedan

By Larry Lark, contributor Mercedes-Benz occupies rarified air in the automobile pantheon.… Continue reading

Don Brunell
Despite COVID, wreaths were placed across America | Don Brunell

More than 1.7 million wreaths were placed on the grave markers of fallen service members.

Photo courtesy of Fisher Scones
Fisher Scones parent company fined for overworking teenage employees

Washington State Department of Labor and Industries found more than 1,500 instances of violations including missing meal breaks, working during school hours and more.

Don Brunell
Introducing wind blade cement | Brunell

Using old wind turbine blades in concrete reduces CO2 emissions by 27 percent.

Don Brunell
E-waste reduction requires innovative approaches | Brunell

Less than 13 percent of electronics are recycled — the rest is dumped.