• Outdoors Outdoors

New groundbreaking study upends traditional thinking on major factor governing massive wildfires: 'Long been overlooked'

"I think it is important to bring this emerging phenomenon to the public to let them know that the night might not save us."

"I think it is important to bring this emerging phenomenon to the public to let them know that the night might not save us."

Photo Credit: iStock

Scientists have long believed nighttime can provide refuge from raging wildfires thanks to cooling temperatures and higher humidity. However, new research has thrown water on the theory, finding some wildfires continued to ravage the continent during the night because of one key weather condition. 

What's happening? 

The paper, published in the scientific journal Nature, suggests drought conditions are now playing a direct role in allowing wildfires to rage for 24 hours with no break.

Researchers with the University of Alberta analyzed the daily burning cycles of over 23,500 fires across North America between 2017 and 2020 and found 1,095 of the wildfires continued to blaze overnight. These overnight fires stretched across the United States and Canada, all the way from Florida to Alaska. 

While 99% of these blazes were associated with large wildfires, the biggest driver that kept the fires burning was drought conditions such as the dryness of vegetation. 

"The presence of daytime drought conditions could act as a predictor of overnight burning events the following night," lead study author Kaiwei Luo said

"Nighttime burning has long been overlooked."

Why are nighttime wildfires important? 

Since conventional firefighting methods are based on the theory of "active day, quiet night," the researchers warned that there needs to be a change so wildfires can be successfully controlled before thousands of homes and lives are lost in a blaze. 

"I think it is important to bring this emerging phenomenon to the public to let them know that the night might not save us," Luo said. 

Extreme weather events such as wildfires have always existed, but scientists agree that the consequences of human-induced climate change — including droughts — can intensify these events, making them more dangerous to millions.  

The researchers warned that as climate change drives drought-like conditions, it could lead to more overnight fires occurring closer together and challenge firefighting efforts. 

"More of these fires also increases the likelihood of a catastrophic fire," study author Mike Flannigan said.

What can be done about it? 

To combat these dangerous conditions, the researchers called for more firefighting resources, such as additional training and equipment. But beyond following Smokey Bear's advice, there is more to be done by the community to lessen drought conditions and lower the risk of overnight blazes, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Toxic chemicals used around the home for cleaning and fertilizing can easily pollute water supplies via spills and runoff. Opting for nontoxic chemicals and natural methods of fertilizing such as composting can protect the availability of clean water. 

Water conservation efforts such as using composting toilets and shutting off faucets when they're not in use can save tons of water. Homeowners can also use low-flow toilets and shower heads, which have been found to decrease water consumption by 40% or more.

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