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The American West Is On Fire

by Paul-Martin Foss

Hurricanes seemed to receive most of the natural disaster media attention this summer, with the wildfires striking various parts of the United States receiving scant attention until just recently. Only now that California’s famed vineyards are at risk of burning is the situation in the West making headlines. Recent fires in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys of California have killed nearly two dozen people, destroyed thousands of buildings, and threatened some of California’s best wine-growing regions.

The latest fires in California have burned hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Dozens of fires continue to burn, many of them uncontained. Strengthened by winds that have at times reached hurricane speeds (greater than 75 mph), some of the largest conflagrations may merge to form even larger fires. And with no rain in sight, it’s unclear when the fires may be brought under control.

The state of California even had to enlist the aid of the world’s largest firefighting aircraft, a modified 747, to assist in fighting the fires. Hundreds of people remain missing, and authorities fear that the death toll may rise significantly once the fires die down and they are able to assess the extent of the damage. Mandatory evacuation orders have been handed down in multiple counties, with tens of thousands of people being forced to flee their homes.

The fires in California aren’t the only ones, however, as massive fires have been raging all summer in Oregon, Montana, and other parts of the West. Whether caused by lightning strikes or human activity, these wildfires are in many cases made worse by modern land management practices and exacerbated by dry, rainless weather patterns.

Historically, wildfires occur periodically as fallen leaves and dry undergrowth ignite during periods of dry weather or through lightning strikes. The fires clear out undergrowth around trees but eventually die out due to lack of fuel. Modern attempts at preventing forest fires try to stamp out any and all fires, allowing more leaves and more underbrush to accumulate. Then when fires occur that increased amount of fuel allows the resulting fires to end up being more devastating.

No one wants to see their house or business destroyed by fire, especially when it can be prevented. The key then is to balance the need for periodic wildfires with policies that protect homeowners and landowners.

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