Heat, fire, smoke and blackouts: How to live with our new reality

Eric Holst

Last year was one of the hottest and driest summers on record in my home state of California. Five of the state’s 10 largest wildfires occurred in 2020 — and experts don’t expect any reprieve this fire season, which is 3½ months longer than it was 50 years ago.

The number of hot days is rising. Snowpacks are melting earlier. Forests and grasslands are drying out from increased evaporation.

From Texas to Washington, extreme heat and wildfires have heightened the risk of power shortages and blackouts at the very time people need reliable energy most, to run air conditioners and purifiers in the face of dangerous heat and air quality.

Building community resilience to fire and heat is an immediate imperative. In addition to curbing emissions, here are three ways we can prepare for the climate impacts that are already here.

1. Build community support for planned fires.

We've come a long way in our understanding of how to manage forests and other ecosystems to reduce fire risk. In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service set a policy to suppress all fires. But that practice changed ecosystems, making forests more fire-prone.

Now we know that it's better to let some fires burn, and that increasing the number of planned or prescribed fires is a cost-effective way to reduce fuel loads.

Still, increasing prescribed fire involves some risks to communities and structures. To succeed, federal and state agencies will need to work with fire-prone communities to plan prescribed fires and associated mechanical thinning in a way that ensures safety and builds trust. This path will likely yield a net increase in acres burned, but those acres will burn at lower intensities and under greater control by firefighters.

Implementing this plan will require a funding fix to shift the majority of Forest Service spending from suppressing fires — 55% of Forest Service outlays in 2017 — to preventing catastrophic wildfires and building forest resilience.

2. Reduce the air pollution we can control.

The longer duration and intensity of wildfire season in the West has compounded health concerns about air quality.

During the 2020 fire season, air-quality monitors in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, measured the highest particulate matter levels of anywhere in the world.

Breathing wildfire smoke has been linked to spikes in asthma, heart attacks and deaths. Children and pregnant women, as well as those with heart disease or respiratory conditions like asthma, are particularly vulnerable to harm from wildfire smoke.

But living with fire is our reality. So in addition to increasing guidance and resources for limiting exposure to wildfire smoke, we need to take immediate action to reduce our exposure to air pollution from burning fossil fuels.

By one recent estimate, air pollution causes nearly 200,000 early deaths each year in the U.S. Transitioning away from fossil fuels to clean energy could cut deaths from air pollution by up to 40% and yield huge economic benefits from improved health and labor productivity.

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is a good start: It calls on Congress to invest $621 billion in transportation infrastructure and resilience, including a $174 billion investment to promote electric vehicles with zero health-harming tailpipe pollution. Some, including Ford’s new all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck, can also provide clean backup power during a blackout.

By addressing the threat that fossil fuels pose to our climate and investing in alternatives to cleanly fuel our economy, we’ll also dramatically cut pollution emissions that cause enormous harm to public health.

3. Boost resilience and innovation in our energy grid.

With extreme and unpredictable weather come extreme and unpredictable surges in energy demand.

But we don’t have to rely on dirty fuels for a stable power supply when there are clear opportunities to boost resilience on the energy grid.

First, we must remove obsolete rules that govern how power companies operate — rules nearly as outdated as the grid itself. This will allow room for much-needed innovation to rethink how power suppliers and customers generate and manage energy more efficiently.

One example: Electric utilities can install cost-effective smart technologies, including sensors and digital communication, to give people only the electricity they need, cutting down on waste that drives up electricity bills and air pollution.

By cutting waste and gaining more control over electricity use and costs, utilities and the customers they serve can resolve problems faster and save power reserves for when they’re needed most.

The dangers of heat, fire, smoke and blackouts are urgent, long-term and interconnected — and so are the opportunities to build resilience to them. By taking a holistic approach to tackling climate risk, we can help the western U.S. and all communities thrive on a changing planet.

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