Epic Drought Brings Fear of Worst Wildfire Season Yet
The firefighters are primed, hoses at the ready. May and June are often the peak months for forest fires in the southwest of the U.S., and the outlook for this year is grim.
“I wish I could have some hope,” says Dr Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at North Arizona University. “It’s just a terrible situation in southern California.”
Covington, an internationally recognized expert on forest restoration, says a prolonged drought, higher temperatures and stronger than usual winds mean big wildfires are inevitable across the southwestern U.S.
The main season for wildfires in the region has in the past been from mid-May through till late September, but now forest fires burn virtually year round.
“Climate change and misguided forestry policies have combined to present a landscape very vulnerable to devastating fires,” Covington told the Climate News Network.
“Since around 2000, we’ve seen more severe dry weather, matched with high winds throughout the western U.S. Intense firestorms are the result. Get in the vicinity of one of those and it’s like being near a blast furnace.”
Covington and other experts say it is vital that people and government policy adapt to the changes in climate.
Over the years, forests have been densely planted in many areas, and old forestry practices—such as clearing out forest and shrubland by regularly burning off old tree cover and dry shrubs—were stopped.
The result is not only an abundance of dense forested areas where fire can build up and spread easily, but also accumulations of dried-out grasses and shrubs—referred to as fine fuel.
Opening up forest areas and reintroducing controlled, periodic burning to rid the landscape of these tinder-dry fuels is key, according to Covington.
He says: “The U.S. Forest Service now sees opening up forest areas and restoring them to what they once were—right across the U.S.—as its primary goal. That’s a huge policy breakthrough.”
The past three years have been among the driest on record in California, and there are fears that the drought will continue.
Wells have dried up in many areas, reservoirs in the state are at a record low, and the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range—vital for feeding water on to the lands below—is at an historic low for the time of year.
For the first time in California’s history, mandatory water restrictions have been brought in, with cities and towns required to cut water use by 25 percent.
This does not, however, apply to the state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, which uses up to 80 percent of water supplies.
Besides the drought, strong winds and higher temperatures, other factors have increased the risk of wildfires across the region. For example, building houses in forest and shrubland areas has also increased the danger of fires being ignited.
“We’ve just got to stop building in those places,” Covington says. “It was crazy 40 years ago—and it’s even more crazy now.”
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
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