Geologists have debated whether to call this era the anthropocene, a geological period where humans are the dominant force reshaping the planet rather than natural processes.
It’s a fair discussion, but I think we might be better off calling it the pyrocene. Flames are beginning to define life on Earth. The summer of 2021, in particular, has been a seemingly endless string of news about various places on fire to the point where it’s almost easier to keep track of places that aren’t on fire than those that are.
Humans have a role to play in those fires, of course. Climate change has increased the odds of large, destructive fires by heating things up, which is drying out trees and grasses. In some locations, notably the western part of North America, a century of fire suppression has also left forests overburdened with fuel. Even as these risks have crept up, people have increasingly moved to the forests. There’s even a world for the place where millions now call home: the wildland-urban interface. Infrastructure like power lines has further upped the risk of igniting fires that then explode in hot, dry conditions and overstuffed forests.
These factors have combined to bring the pyrocene into existence. And as this summer shows, nary a forest is safe from igniting. Here are some of the notable fires and regions burning right now.
Western North America
The West is no stranger to fire, but this year is off to a raging start. Major fires are burning in 12, including two in Oregon and California that have created their own weather systems at various points, including a firenado. The situation is already so dire and resources already so battered by previous seasons that the Forest Service chief declared it a “national wildfire crisis,” and we’re still months away from the fall fire season in California when Diablo and Santa Ana winds can fan flames of even greater intensity.
British Columbia has also see monster fires burn largely uncontrolled. The province along with Alberta saw 710,000 bolts of lightning in a single day, many of which reached the ground and ignited fires in remote, hard-to-reach locations. Humans have also caused fires, including one that burned down the entire town of Lytton, British Columbia, just a day after it set the record for Canada’s hottest temperature.
Western Canada isn’t the only place burning. Northwest Ontario and parts of Manitoba have been engulfed by flames in what is an abnormally fierce wildfire season for the region. More than 157 fires are burning in the region, and have led to the evacuation of First Nations and others in their path. That includes the Kenora 51 Fire, which, at 386,458 acres, is nearly the size of the Bootleg Fire in Oregon, the largest in the U.S.
All told, Ontario has seen nearly four-and-a-half times more acres burned this year than the 10-year average while Manitoba has seen five-and-half-times the average area burned, according to data kept by Natural Resources Canada.
Thick smoke from the fires has covered the region in a toxic haze. Combined with smoke from the western fires, poor air quality has spread as far east as Maine and led to ominous sunsets across the Maritime Provinces and East Coast.
A year after Siberian forest fires released a record amount of carbon dioxide, the region is once again trending in the wrong direction. Hot, dry weather has led to a rash of fires in July that are once again well outside the long-term average. Carbon dioxide emissions from the fires are already double the 2003 to 2020 average and are now higher than they were at this same time last year. Whether the fires keep up their torrid pace remains to be seen.
A study found that last year’s extreme heat that drove the fires was 600 times more likely due to climate change. An analysis for this year’s abnormally hot weather hasn’t been done yet, but it’s become increasingly clear we can now safely assume climate change plays a role in every heat wave by either making it hotter or more likely.
While these are the most remote fires of the lot, they’re also the largest. Satellite images show a deep, thick layer of smoke and massive burn scars covering an area the size of Connecticut. And that’s just one of the numerous areas ablaze.
Sardinia and the Western Mediterranean
The Italian island of Sardinia was raked by what local officials said were “unprecedented” wildfires over the weekend. Centuries-old olive groves burned and the normally tourist-friendly island suffered what are likely hundreds of millions in damages.
Other parts of the western Mediterranean ignited earlier this month. Spain’s Costa Brava saw major fires that led to hundreds of evacuations as well, and the flames were only brought under control this weekend.
Turkey and Greece
The Mediterranean is a ring of fire, with Turkey and Greece also burning. Fires in Turkey began on Wednesday amid gust, hot, and dry conditions along the coast. Absolutely terrifying images and videos emerged of tourists on the beach as wildfires roared in the hills behind oceanfront hotels and villas. According to the AP, 50 towns and villages were evacuated as fires marauded across the countryside. There are at least three dead and 50 injured as more than 4,000 firefighters work to contain the fires.
Wildfires also burned in Greece over the weekend, including an “out of control” one on the outskirts of Athens. Fires also plagued Greece earlier in July as well.