As the American public heads outdoors to celebrate the traditional fare-thee-well to summer, summer shows little sign of leaving. With a heat dome parked over California and temperatures projected to be 10 to 30 degrees above normal as far east as Wisconsin, more than 40 million people are under extreme heat alerts through the weekend. A third of the country could see record-setting temperatures over the next few days.
That outlook doesn’t seem to have deterred the camping public, however. Yosemite National Park, to cite just one example, is at capacity even though the valley floor is expected to warm up to 106 degrees–and that’s at an elevation of just under 4,000 feet. The heat, on top of the drought, means additional wildland fires are sure to follow the ones that have erupted in the past couple of days, like the fast-moving conflagration in northern California that has forced thousands to flee their homes just since yesterday.
Even without the fires that it invariably spawns, high heat is remarkable for the human toll it exacts. Tornadoes and floods get most of the press, if only because they wreak so much obvious damage in addition to the lives they snuff out. High heat, on the other hand, just bakes everything. Other than turning the landscape brown, it’s not an immediately obvious cause of destruction and it kills by comparative stealth. Yet if you look at a graph of weather fatalities compiled by the National Weather Service, above, the number of deaths attributed to heat stands head and shoulders above all other causes.
Because it’s so seemingly innocuous, extreme heat on the order that we’re seeing this long weekend isn’t deterring people who wouldn’t dream of heading into an area battered by tornadoes, hurricanes or flooding. So the campers are out there in their tents or RVs, attempting to enjoy the great outdoors, firing up their charcoal grills and roasting their marshmallows over open fires. And when the inevitable happens, the resulting fatality statistics won’t get lumped in with those attributed to high heat, although an argument for doing so certainly can be made.
The increasing ferocity of wildland fires over the past decade is taking a toll in another way: it’s hollowing out the state and federal agencies charged with battling the blazes, through death, injury, stress, overwork and PTSD. Incidents of drug addiction, binge drinking and suicide are growing. Yet as the total number of acres burned each year has doubled over the past 20 years, hundreds of fire fighting positions remain vacant and the number is growing.
Unlike the other “natural” disasters graphed above, all of which are exacerbated by climate change and a warming planet, wildland fires are triggered in the vast majority of cases by man and his works: a carelessly tossed cigarette butt, a dropped power line, a hot car or RV muffler sparking a fire in dessicated grass. The resulting conflagration, battled by an exhausted and undermanned force of fire fighters, spreads farther and hotter than it would have otherwise, taking a further toll on the fire-fighting ranks–which means that the next go-round will be still more unevenly matched . . . and on and on.
Common sense suggests that in circumstances like these, people should just stay home–just as they would if they learned a snow storm were going to drop 30 inches of snow on their heads. But common sense seems so, well, un-American when it might disrupt a ritualistic obeisance to Labor Day, which we celebrate in observance of–what, exactly?