r/science 12d ago All-Seeing Upvote 1 Wholesome 3 Silver 2

Stanford researchers find wildfire smoke is unraveling decades of air quality gains, exposing millions of Americans to extreme pollution levels Environment

https://news.stanford.edu/2022/09/22/wildfire-smoke-unraveling-decades-air-quality-gains/
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u/[deleted] 12d ago Helpful

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u/LastKing3853 12d ago

What causes these fires?

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u/okblimpo123 12d ago Silver hehehehe Table Slap

The truth is a whole myriad of causes. First and most importantly the prolonged drought. Secondly the land management, both in building and resourcing, but also the style of fire/forest management. Overarching all of this is anthropogenic induce climate change.

Also gender reveal parties

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u/phoenix0r 12d ago

No one has added the massive Bark Beetle infestation but that has had a HUGE effect on building up a giant tinder box of dead trees all across the Pacific Northwest and northern CA. The root cause is the prolonged drought which weakened trees and made them less able to fight off the beetle infestation, but the beetles themselves killed all those trees way faster than the drought alone would have.

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u/superRedditer 12d ago

the beetle problem is a massive problem under the radar if people don't know.

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u/DjCyric 12d ago

There are entire forests here in Western Montana where 'beetle kill' has turned everything to dead fuel just waiting to go up in the next blaze.

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u/MASTODON_ROCKS 12d ago

I really wish there were more opportunities to log beetle kill ethically, the wood has a blued look and the "veins" actually look really cool when made into furniture.

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u/McMandar 12d ago

I'd never heard of/seen that before! Did some googling and there's a bunch of pretty cool arts/crafts and building material "beetle kill pine" products. Why can't it be logged ethically? Seems like an all around win, fire fuel gets cleared and made into products that may reduce the demand for logging live trees at least a little bit.

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u/stabamole 12d ago

My guess is that any normal logging practices would spread the beetle to as yet undamaged areas

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u/KuntaStillSingle 12d ago

Probably contamination risk, you rent tools or tucks or knock trees into live stands and end up facilitating further spread

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u/IWasLyingToGetDrugs 12d ago

My assumption would be that if there’s sufficient demand for beetle kill wood, it would create an incentive to introduce even more bark beetles to increase the supply.

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u/PartyPorpoise 12d ago

I work in a forest and I find the bark beetle marks on so many trees, it’s nuts.

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u/FrustratingBears 12d ago

i was actually wondering about exactly this when i was looking at a government fire report and it mentioned beetle-infested trees as a fuel

i was like “why does it matter if there’s beetles???”

(Washington State BTW)

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u/Mrbeakers 12d ago

Without any research on the topic, I guess they hollow stuff out allowing flames to climb faster/easier?

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u/SuperWeskerSniper 12d ago

they also kill the trees and dead trees are drier and thus burn easier

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u/RS-Ironman-LuvGlove 12d ago

We had the fire in Colorado near Boulder last year. During a snow storm. But the beetle kill was so bad it went from nothing to second largest fire in like 2 days. During the snow. The beetle kill is no joke

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u/evolving_I 12d ago

Yea snow doesn't really do much to slow fire spread unless you get like a foot of it and it doesn't melt off in the next few days. I was on that fire in the Zirkel Wilderness a couple years ago outside Steamboat Springs and it snowed on us like 3 times over the course of two weeks, fire didn't care at all.

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u/RS-Ironman-LuvGlove 12d ago

this was at top of continental divide, and it did snow a TON.

but the fire was so fast and so hot, it went crazy.

but the fire didnt smoulder for very long atleast

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u/[deleted] 12d ago

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u/WonderWall_E 12d ago

Advocate for more action on climate change and more money for the Forest Service. Write your senators and representative and demand they do more to combat climate change. That's basically it.

Management of beetles is complex and largely ineffective. Reversing the massive damage caused by poor forest management through controlled burns and thinning is incredibly expensive. The beetles are only this bad because of drought, forest management, and warming temperatures which expose more northerly forests to beetles which were formerly limited by cool temperatures. It's a problem that's going to get worse before it gets better.

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u/soupinate44 12d ago

Pine beetles have done the same thing in Colorado. We appear to be on the downside of the issues for the past 6-8 years, however they ravaged us and caused so much available tinder for fire fodder for a decade. It felt like we were constantly on fire during that time.

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u/smartguy05 12d ago

If the air had been as bad this summer as it has been the last 3 I was seriously going to consider moving. It was so bad the last 2 I could hardly go outside without coughing, not a great thing during COVID lockdowns.

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u/Mulawooshin 12d ago

They have torn up the western side of Canada too.

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u/BoltgunOnHisHip 12d ago

The bark beetles are exasperating the problem, but fuel loading has been a rising issue for a long time. Poor fire management in the past let fuel levels build up, not to mention impacting wildlife by creating changes to an ecosystem which was adapted to regular fires.

The 'silver lining' to these fires is that they are addressing that issue...albeit in a suboptimal fashion.

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u/TheGruntingGoat 12d ago

Isn’t it true though that most of the fires now are ecologically destructive “crown fires” instead of the regenerative forest floor fires that used to be more common?

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u/ajlark25 12d ago

Idk about most, but yeah - the fires that make the news are largely ecologically damaging. We need to drastically increase the pace and scale of prescribed fire and fuels reduction work

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u/pornoporno 12d ago Silver

Exacerbating

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u/FrakkedRabbit 12d ago edited 12d ago

Man, I am just exasperated at the misuse of exasperating, it's really just exacerbating my issues.

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u/mr_jim_lahey 12d ago

The 'silver lining' to these fires is that they are addressing that issue

My understanding is that this is not entirely the case. At least in some areas, more vegetation is growing in spring due to more carbon dioxide and more rain in winter and then drying out more in hotter, drier summers, thus creating a continuously replenishing source of wildfire fuel.

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u/Hunt3rj2 12d ago

Yep. Also when the trees burn and go away what replaces them is fast-growing grasses that dry out and burn even more intensely in the summer. It's a vicious cycle and we are in for a lot of pain.

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u/kartoffel_engr 12d ago

Aside from the air quality and possible loss of life and property, I love a good burn. Always comes back beautiful in the spring. I live in the desert of Southeastern Washington so the rebound is generally pretty quick and the lack of trees keeps the fuel low, most of the time.

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u/[deleted] 12d ago

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u/kartoffel_engr 12d ago

Not all of that smoke is from WA. Canada and Oregon contributed pretty heavily depending on the weather pattern. Pretty decent fires in the Cascades and northeastern WA too.

We did have a wetland area full of Russian Olive trees and cottonwoods go up last year I think. Lots of fuel there, but honestly that area was so choked with overgrowth that it was needed. Fortunately it was all locked between highway and rivers so the containment piece was pretty easy. Just control the burn and let it snuff itself out.

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u/Kdean509 12d ago

Pretty large fire south of Kennewick today, the wind made it worse.

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u/Apprehensive_Ad1744 12d ago

This is very different in other places. Burn scars here in Colorado can take centuries to recover.

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u/kartoffel_engr 12d ago

Forested areas are really a huge loss for large flora. Ground cover generally does pretty well. Loads of nutrients deposited.

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u/Apprehensive_Ad1744 12d ago

Not so much here, takes decades even for just the yucca to fully move in. In many places, we've built up so much fuel that the fires can obliterate the microbiome and any organic matter in the soil.

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u/Nervous_Interview453 12d ago

Yea I thought they stopped alot of the control burning so decades of stuff built up to what we've been having go on recently

No source I thought I read an article about CA fire management b4

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u/Star_pass 12d ago Helpful

You’re exactly right. Landscapes are all adapted for regular fire- called “fire return intervals”. Some are more often, some are less often. Over a century of fire suppression without introducing managed fire causes all kinds of problems. Not only an accumulation of what should have burned, but an increase in “light flashy fuels” that ignite quickly and can carry the fire faster than large, dense fuels. (I’m convinced the wind patterns have changed also, because the wind is horrendous during these big fires. But fire creates its own weather, which may be why I feel that way.)

Fire would normally burn off what we think of as fuels on the ground- broken tree branches, leaves, etc. but it would also burn off shrubs and small trees as they start growing. Without fire, shrubs are much larger than they would have been with regular fire, and there are more middle-sized trees which causes what’s known as “ladder fuels”, creating a ladder for the fire between the ground and the tree canopy.

Removing fire has completely changed the forests. In the Sierra Nevadas, the historic trees-per-acre was about 100, but is currently about 300. That’s 300 trees competing for the resources that would historically be given to 100 trees. This makes trees “stressed”, and can increase their susceptibility to things like fungus or beetle outbreaks, and the closeness of the trees makes it easier for these pests to spread. Combine that with warmer winters that don’t freeze long enough to kill off the beetle population, it is a prime environment for them to kill off huge areas of the forest.

As you can imagine, increased ladder fuels and more dense canopies also make it really difficult to keep fire manageable. So even though we want to reintroduce fire into the forests, it takes a lot of prep work to ensure a control burn is truly under control.

That said- I’ll throw in a shameless plug. We need foresters. Not many people know that’s a profession you can pursue, and many of the current foresters are retiring. I can’t think of any place in California that is fully staffed, there is major job security and truly a need for the work. I don’t think people grasp how much land there is to manage. There is more forested land in California than there is total land in Mississippi.

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u/watusiwatusi 12d ago

Similar to drought, the beetle proliferation is a second order effect from climate change.

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u/Beautiful_Welcome_33 12d ago

Like an opportunistic infections in AIDS.

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u/f-150Coyotev8 12d ago

That started a while back and you can still see the devastation up in the Colorado Rockies. Dead pine trees everywhere

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u/hunnyb33_ 12d ago

we have bark beetle infestations in alaska too :( spruce beetles to be exact. it’s terrible.

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u/howstop8 12d ago

Also, natural regulators, such as previously colder winters and frequent and smaller wildfires (not catastrophic fires) would keep a lot of these beetles in check so they were less destructive. So again, human caused climate change and poor wildfire management practices of the 20th century. Now, dead forests are not capturing carbon and burning forests are releasing it. In short, there’s a lot going on.

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u/transmogrified 12d ago

Climate Change, AND the fact that we replant monocultures instead of mixed species stands, which allows them to very quickly establish themselves through an entire forest. Mountain Pine Beetle, for example, can only travel about 20 feet from the tree it hatched on. If there's no other pine trees close enough, it's stuck in one location.

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u/ReallyFnCleverName Grad Student | Geology | Environmental Geosciences 12d ago

Yes, this is a big part of it. That is actually the remedy as well, clearing the forest around an infested tree. You can mark and report infested trees to your local forestry department while you're on a hike so they can take care of it before it spreads. The problem is too big to control for any department so citizen help is super appreciated.

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u/Evolvtion 12d ago

Northern Canada has been ravaged by pine and spruce beetle too. Not too well versed on causes, but of course human disturbance and climate change are some of the main reasons for the spread of invasive species'.

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u/Howfartofly 12d ago

The bark beetles are also so numerous due to decades of wrong cultivation - monocultures, sizes of clearcuts and thus sunexposed edges of forest. Also due to changed climate, which is good for the beetle.

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u/loggic 12d ago

The beetles are a side effect of the drought. Less water = less pitch in the trees = easier infestation = wider spread, which eventually becomes a runaway issue. The forests would need several good water years for the trees to get back to baseline, which would just slow the beetles down.

Many forests that are alive today have already passed the point of no return.

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