Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Over 40 Percent of the United States is Experiencing a Drought as Dozens of Wildfires Burn Across the Country

FRIDAY, JUNE 18, 2021 AS OF 3:00 PM EDT

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that the United States (US) will continue to experience a remarkably dry June, especially across Midwest and Western states. NOAA estimates that approximately 43 percent of the country is experiencing a form of drought. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Earth Observatory continues to monitor persisting extreme drought conditions across Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah which continues to make these states vulnerable to recurring heat waves, dry air, and wildfires. Additionally, a record-breaking heat dome grips the western half of the US, causing 33 active large fires to ignite across 10 states. A number of the reported large fires ignited within the past three days. In total, the active large fires have burned over 372,000 acres.

Drought Conditions as of May 25, 2021: National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS)

Currently, the Telegraph Fire and Mescal Fire, the largest active fires in Arizona and two of the three largest active fires in the US, have collectively consumed over 238 thousand acres. Smoke blankets drifted across the Phoenix metro area due to persistent burning from the Telegraph and Mescal fires, with some contribution from the Pinnacle Fire (further to the east). The smoke-blanket blocked sun rays from penetrating the area, preventing the forecasted high temperature of 117 degrees which would have broken the previous state record high of 115 degrees set on June 15th, 1974. NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) stated that drought conditions will likely continue to intensify throughout the warmer summer months. Furthermore, the Climate Prediction Center’s (CPC) US Seasonal Drought Outlook, released on June 17, noted that hot, dry weather is predicted through 2021, especially in the western US and the northern Great Plains. 

NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information monitors potential drought impacts to communities and the surrounding environments, including water shortages impacting crop yields, higher rates of heat stroke incidences or death, and increased risk of wildfires. In response to the ongoing drought conditions, state and federal government actors have implemented measures to help conserve water and stymie tensions between competing interests from farmers, municipal bodies, and individual consumers. The US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) issued an update in late May that calls for the reduction of water allocated for agricultural use in California due to the “degradation of hydrologic conditions,” during the drought.  

Seasonal Drought Outlook, June 17 to Sept. 30, 2021: CPC

HEALTH RISKS OF WILDFIRES

The impact of a fire event on the human body poses a significant risk to overall health, and is not generally documented to the extent of damage and property loss. NPR reported on a study at the University of California at San Diego where researchers found that small particles in wildfire smoke were up to 10 times more dangerous to humans than particles released from other combustible sources (e.g., car exhaust). Additionally, authors of this study compared hospital admissions data over 14 years in southern California, concluding pollutants from wildfire smoke increased hospitalizations by 10 percent. The World Health Organization (WHO) cautions that a range of health problems can arise from wildfire smoke, including eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation; decreased lung function; pulmonary inflammation, bronchitis, and other lung diseases; and exacerbation of cardiovascular diseases. Considering the varying sensitivities to wildfire smoke and that most healthy adults and children will not experience long-term consequences, Air Now reported that certain populations may face a greater risk to develop severe acute and chronic symptoms, including: people with asthma and other respiratory diseases, people with cardiovascular disease, young children, older adults, pregnant women, people of low socioeconomic status, and outdoor workers. 

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced potential co-morbidities, such as wildfire smoke exposure increasing susceptibility to COVID-19 and other respiratory infections, as well as exposure to smoke aggravating symptoms for individuals with COVID-19, according to the Washington State Department of Health. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages those in an area at-risk for wildfires to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible and learn the differences between the symptoms of smoke exposure and COVID-19 (e.g., fever, body aches, and diarrhea) to mitigate against potential health risks. 

NOAA Satellites are following heat-related disasters closely: Link

Wildfire Safety Infographics: Weather.gov

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) encourages individuals to prepare and plan for wildfires. As these events can develop rapidly, it is never too soon to prepare for a potential fire incident. Individuals should follow the guidance of state and local authorities, remaining safe with most fires largely uncontained across the US. The Hagerty Blog Team will continue providing information and updates on current events and disasters impacting the nation, visit Disaster Discourse for the latest information.

RELATED STORIES

  • Remember, Ready.gov provides information on how to prepare for Wildfire and how to keep you and your family safe.
  • FEMA America’s PrepareAthon: How to Prepare for a Wildfire
  • The Los Angeles Times regularly updated tracking of California Wildfires: California Wildfires Map.
  • The National Fire Protection Association provides wildfire preparedness tips: link.
  • Marin County provides a wildfire evacuation checklist: link
  • FEMA provides an information video about how to be prepared for Wildfires: link.

Keep track of Hagerty’s incident coverage here:

Wildfires 2021