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Will wildfires become Minnesota’s new summer norm?

Increasing heat and wildfires work together in a vicious cycle that constantly feeds off itself.

A small defensive firing operation on the southwest side of the Greenwood Fire on August 26.
A small defensive firing operation on the southwest side of the Greenwood Fire on August 26.
U.S. Forest Service - Superior National Forest

In response to “Are extreme summers the new normal in Minnesota?” by Yasmine Askari:

It came as a relief when reading that the summer that Minnesota has experienced this year is likely to be an uncommon one. The combination of extreme heat, drought, and wildfire smoke is unlikely to be a common occurrence. However, the part that stood out in this article is how easily the increase in wildfires and temperatures were seemingly brushed over. The last few years have shown a frighteningly high increase in fires, not just in the state but the entire world. If Minnesota is going to start accepting warmer temperatures as a new norm, then we’re going to have to accept more wildfires and smoky skies as part of that norm.

Longer wildfire seasons

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, wildfire seasons are getting longer. On average, the seasons are expanding by an additional 3.5 months a year. The main reason for this: higher temperatures and shorter winters. As referenced in the article, the warmer temperatures that we have been experiencing only seem to be affecting our winters, but that is a major red flag in itself. Shorter and warmer winters leave more time for wildfire seasons.

Another part of the article mentioned that Minnesota has actually experiencing one of its wettest decades ever recorded. This was mentioned to counter the fact that Minnesota is experiencing a drought right now. However it’s important to point out that, according to a study done by Yongqiang Liu and colleagues (2013) on future wildfire potential in the United States, areas that are experiencing higher amounts of precipitation are still at greater risk for wildfires when rising temperatures are involved. Even with more rain, increased temperatures cause quicker evaporation, which leads to shorter winters and more natural fuel for wildfires to use once they get started.

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Serious health issues

Not only do wildfires destroy homes and infrastructure, but they cause health concerns for the people who live near them. One study by Rongbin Xu and colleagues (2020) on wildfires and human health noted that people can be physically affected by wildfires as far as 620 miles away from where it’s burning. According to this same study, experiences include inhalation, heat stroke, and cardiac and respiratory issues. These are serious health issues that can especially affect children, pregnant women, and people over the age of 65. This is a large part of the population that is going to need extra assistance during times of wildfires, even if that means that the fires are an entire state away.

Rachel Schwalbach
Rachel Schwalbach
Increasing heat and wildfires work together in a vicious cycle that constantly feeds off itself. According to the same Xu study (2020), warmer temperatures increase the frequency and size of wildfires, the fires cause the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the air, which in turns causes higher temperatures, and so on. So although a summer like this year’s may not be a common occurrence, it’s important to look at the warning signs. Before we know it, wildfires could be as much as a norm in the Midwest as they are on the West Coast. It’s important to learn from our current experiences so we know what to look out for in the future.

Rachel Schwalbach is a graduate student studying clinical social work at the University of St. Thomas. She has a bachelor’s degree in social work.

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