“It’s a serious problem that people don’t pay enough attention to”

The near-constant twilight-like lighting caused by last summer’s wildfires in Canada may be more common in the future for residents of the eastern United States.

That’s because researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have found “increases in fire size, frequency and seasonality” in that part of the country, according to a report by experts.

“This is a serious problem that people aren’t paying enough attention to: We have an increasing frequency of wildfires in several regions of the US, not just in the West,” lead study author Victoria Donovan, an assistant professor at the university, said in a report.

What is happening?

The research team analyzed federal data on large wildfires in the eastern United States from 1984 to 2020, the most recent data available. The fires have destroyed more than 490 acres. The study found that large wildfires in the “southern and eastern” parts of the eastern temperate forest region have an increased risk of catastrophic fires, according to the experts’ report

Temperate forests extend from the Atlantic coast to eastern Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota. That includes part of the Appalachian mountain range, the US Forest Service reports.

“The eastern United States has the most extensive wildland-urban boundary in the country and is therefore at high risk for wildfires,” Donovan said in the university’s story. “The thinking behind this study was that if there are signals that wildfires are increasing, we need to understand what those changes look like.”

What is the cause and why does it matter?

Experts looked at ignition patterns, changes in vegetation (fuel) and climate. While experts can’t blame our warming planet for every weather disaster, it’s like the proverbial elephant in the room.

“We’re not looking at the drivers of the trends in this study, but it’s hard to talk about changing conditions without considering that climate may be a factor,” Donovan said in the university’s report.

The US Environmental Protection Agency makes a clear connection.

“Multiple studies have found that climate change has already increased the length of the wildfire season, the frequency of wildfires and the area burned,” the agency said.

The results can be dire. The western gray squirrel, for example, is now threatened, in part because of wildfires in Washington state.

Researchers hope that attention to East Coast issues now can prevent similar headlines from that part of the country.

What is the solution?

People are the leading ignition point for wildfires in the East, including from power lines, according to researchers. That’s why it’s important to read about global warming, changing weather, and how best to adapt to improve outcomes.

Donovan calls it “proactive” management of forested lands and “individual preparedness.” It’s a good idea to review Smokey Bear’s advice before camping or working with outdoor equipment.

“We don’t yet have the large-scale wildfire problem that the western U.S. has, so this is also an opportunity to get ahead of the problem and prepare for changing wildfire patterns before we start seeing the frequent destructive fires that we see in the West she said in the report.

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