The wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington have been devastating to homes and businesses in the area, leaving thousands with the task of rebuilding their lives. Amid all of that destruction of property are real environmental impacts to this beautiful area that can endure for years.
The unrelenting blaze that has scorched the west coast has destroyed or damaged more than 42,000 structures, displaced at least 1,000,000 people and killed at least 35 others. It’s burned up at least 5,000,000 acres of land overall.
Fire is a natural and important component in sustaining an ecosystem: it replenishes soil nutrients and clears away dead trees and other debris. In fact, according to National Geographic, giant sequoias native to the west coast need a fire’s heat to regenerate. However, the that have hit the west coast could prove to be more than what an ecosystem requires.
Impact on the Human Environment
As the west coast fires have quickly consumed homes, business, and other structures, in addition to wildlife habitats, and timber, they’ve released toxic smoke in the air that pollutes the environment. The fires eat up everything in their path and then through the smoke carry toxic chemicals for as many as hundreds or thousands of miles, all the while leaving an extraordinary amount of carbon in the atmosphere, according to National Geographic.
This toxic smoke has already caused air quality to plummet to dangerous levels in California, Oregon and WashingtonIn addition to toxic air, there’s also the debris and ash that covers charred neighborhoods. The ash is the aftermath of everything that was burned up, which includes anything in a home, including chemicals, plastic, and paint, all of which can be toxic to humans and animals.
Officials advise that if residents do need to go into affected neighborhoods, that they wear proper safety gear like masks and gloves, along with long pants and shirts so as to avoid exposure.
Another big concern for residents is the threat of landslides. Wildfires can char soil and quicken the likelihood of erosion, which when paired with an onslaught of flooding rainfall creates yet another disaster residents must face. When fire burns up vegetation, it destroys what keeps soil stable. Then when it rains heavily, the water washes all of that soil away with ease.
Impacts on the Natural Environment
While the state’s ecosystems have adapted to rely on periodic, smaller scale natural fires for renewal, the scale of the recent string of fires could have negative impacts on flora and fauna that may take years from which to recover.
Intense wildfires can destroy the very foundation on which plants and animals alike rely. The blaze of intense wildfires are supremely destructive — quickly consuming in their path a large quantity of biomass and causing post-fire soil erosion and water runoff, in addition to the aforementioned air pollution.
The loss of topsoil and combustion of organic material can have a negative impact on a variety of processes, including nutrient retention and water infiltration, according to the U.S. Forest Service. To replace the soil’s lost nitrogen — an element crucial to plant growth — would require special plants that reset the balance. Furthermore, the blaze can exacerbate soil erosion, because of the burned up foliage.
More specifically, invasive weeds and grassses could overtake native plants and shrubs, making soil erosion more likely which could lead to even more frequent wildfires in the future, according to CBS.
The impact on animals will depend on the species. Smaller animals, such as rabbits and some birds, might have trouble surviving in the face of the loss of native vegetation on which they rely, the CBS piece said.
Depending on the ecosystem, various practices, such as expanded housing developments and the utilities they require, fire exclusion/firefighting, and timber harvesting, in the past several decades have made it easier for fires to get out of control, according to the USFS.
Overall, the human and natural environments on the west coast have been devastatingly altered and will take years to return to normal — although that “normal” may have to be a new one.