The frequency and intensity of wildfires are on the rise, posing significant consequences for an ever-growing number of people and our agricultural system. But what about the impact on our food system? We had the opportunity to speak with Jay Walter from Greenridge Farming in Oregon; Dave Cameron, the operator of C6 Agri Farms in Omaha, Nebraska; and Don Wysocki, an extension soil scientist at Oregon State University, to gauge their level of concern. Their answer? Well, it's a bit more complex than a simple yes or no...
Wildfires run wild
This summer, many of us have experienced the hazy orange skies and smelly air. It has affected people all throughout the United States and even over in Europe. It’s all too clear for anyone to see and smell: more frequent and more extreme wildfires – fires that consume thousands upon thousands of acres of forests, grasslands and even farming areas, all the while pumping colossal amounts of potentially noxious gases and particulates into the atmosphere.
We have seen it almost daily in video reports of more than 800 active wildfires across Canada and others across large swatches of the United States, notably the Southwest. Most recently, we’ve witnessed the horror of fires in Maui. High temperatures push the gas and ash from fires higher and higher into the atmosphere, allowing jet stream winds to sweep pollutants literally thousands of miles.
Reports of hazy, orange-tinted skies and complaints of sneezing, itchy eyes and difficulty breathing spread across the upper tier of the United States, all the way to the East Coast. As a result, New York City this summer earned the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the entire world.
How bad is it?
The numbers associated with today’s wildfires are mind-numbing.
- Over 5,000 Canadian wildfires so far this year involve all 10 provinces and three territories, covering over 12 million hectares (30 million acres). 52 new fires were reported in a single day (July 31).
- In the United States, the number of fires and acreage involved trail the Canadian figures but remain substantial, nonetheless. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports major fires burning across nine U.S. states, involving 1.1 million acres. The fires in Maui have burned over 2,100 acres alone.
- The U.S. Forest Service spends up to half its $3 billion budget fighting wildfires. NIFC estimates that the U.S. government spent over $35.5 billion fighting fires covering nearly 7.6 million acres in 2022. The sad part of all this destruction is that 85% of fires are started by humans either by unattended campfires, debris burns that got out of control, including those started by smoldering cigarettes, and arson.
- The economic costs of wildfires are estimated to range from $71.1 billion to $347.8 billion annually, including direct losses of $63.5 billion to $285 billion.
- Between 2000 to 2019, more than 400 Wildland Fire Fighters died fighting wildfires.
- Wildfires are increasing well beyond North America. Major fires this year have occurred in Greece, Portugal, Corfu, France, Italy, Chile, Kazakhstan, China and beyond. It’s not surprising to hear United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guiterres say we have passed into an “era of global boiling.”
- The number of U.S. citizens exposed to unhealthy levels of wildfire pollutants for at least one day per year has increased 27-fold in the past decade, with an estimated 25 million Americans breathing potentially toxic air from fires.
Such dramatic statistics may obscure the central questions created for Dirt to Dinner by the proliferation of wildfires.
- How much of a threat are these wildfires to our personal health and the environment, especially our soil?
- What if any effect will these wildfires have on our food, in terms of its quality, availability or cost?
What’s the danger to human and animal health from all this?
The loss of forest, grasslands and agricultural land from wildfires is undoubtedly cause for concern. But if you really want to worry, focus instead on the pollutants created by these enormous conflagrations.
Wildfire smoke is a devil’s brew of harmful ingredients – carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, water vapor and various particulate matters. As fires burn, these substances rise in the air, driven upward by heat, finding prevailing winds aloft capable of carrying them thousands of miles.
The fine particles in wildfire smoke irritate the respiratory system, causing wheezing, coughing and difficulty in breathing. The ability to fight off bacteria and viruses in the lungs may be compromised. Extended exposure can lead to serious respiratory and cardiological problems. Health risks increase, even in healthy people.
For the elderly or very young, pregnant women or the infirm, the consequences can be much worse – and even deadly. (A chart of the overall health effects can be found here.)
The chief culprits in this health threat are polluting particles known as PM2.5 – particles generally 2.5 microns in diameter, or smaller. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates these PM2.5 particles may make up as much as 90 percent of the total mass of particles emitted from wildfires. Their small size enables them to pass through the normal air filtrations systems of the human body and find their way to the lungs and cause damage to both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
The scientific community continues to explore the question of the relationship between exposure and lasting health damage.
But whether a short-term problem or a long-term health issue, PM2.5 particles are cause for genuine concern.
(At D2D, we wrote about how you can mitigate the harmful effects of wildfire smoke in your lungs with a nutrient-dense diet.)
What about farming and the environment?
Air pollutants are nothing new. Many of the same pollutants from wildfires are common to any industrialized society, from manufacturing to power generation and beyond. The creation of the EPA on January 9, 1970, was a milestone in the regulatory oversight of noxious pollutants arising from human activity.
Wildfires, however, are not easily subject to regulatory constraints. The prospect of more frequent and more intense wildfires worries many environmentalists, with some openly asking if we are entering a new era of air pollution from wildfires that erases many of the hard-won air quality gains since the 1970s. And as air quality declines, human and animal health risks rise. Overall, ecologically minded climate observers say, wildfires add to pressures to enforce stringent air-quality guidelines and battle the climate change that fuels wildfires.
Life-long farmers at the front lines of the wildfire battles seem to acknowledge the environmental aspects of the wildfires and the likelihood we will see such events increase in frequency. But for now, they tend to shrug off their lasting effects on agricultural productivity, or our overall food supply. They also make it clear that we shouldn’t allow any sole focus on the role of climate change in the current situation to become a smokescreen for other important issues.
What our experts have to say…
Jay Walter of Greenridge Farming in Oregon worries the public clamor over wildfires might “fuel a bigger fire of misperception” about the effect of fire on our food system. Wildfires are nothing new for producers, especially in the drier, less humid production areas like the Pacific Northwest, Montana and even Kansas, he observes.
“We’ve had bad fires in two of the past five years here in the Pacific Northwest,” he notes. “I haven’t seen any evidence that particulates have had any real effect on our crops… there’s no loss in quality. Maybe yields drop a little, but not enough to worry me.” (Certain special crops – such as the grapes used to create the superb area wines – may be vulnerable to the heat and its effects.)
On the other hand, smoky, hazy conditions also may diffuse or otherwise block sunlight from reaching plants, according to Dave Cameron, who operates C6 Agri Farms in Omaha, Nebraska. “That limits the heat units that crops need to mature, with maybe minimal effect on yield. But I haven’t seen evidence that it limits them enough to cause any serious problems.”
Don Wysocki, extension soil scientist at Oregon State University and past regional director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, largely agrees with Walter and Cameron:
“Fires tend to occur more in forested lands and grasslands used for grazing far more than crop areas,” Wysocki observes.
“They happen where the physical conditions are right – the temperature, moisture conditions, wind conditions, plus fuel load. If a fire becomes too intense, the high heat can affect the soil, but by and large such occurrences in row-crop situations are comparatively rare.”
“The big Yellowstone fire years ago burned the organic material out of the soil,” he notes, and created hydrophobicity. That means the soil became so compacted it actually repelled water and lacked the organic material needed to absorb water. “It took years for the vegetation to regenerate and restore vitality to the soil,” he said. “But it just doesn’t happen in agriculture. The intensity and duration of the fire just isn’t there.”
Walter and Cameron also say the effects of wildfires on farm animals appear to be minimal and often depends upon the proximity to an actual fire. Heat and the pollutants within smoke can have the same pernicious effects on farm animals as they have on humans, they acknowledge. But by and large, unless the animals are in close and sustained proximity to a fire, the effects aren’t too severe and don’t last long. Farmers and ranchers take the health and well-being of their animals seriously and will do whatever they can to assure their protection from real harm.
Cameron adds the often-overlooked effect of wildfires on animal habitat. Fires push out wildlife and can contribute to a change to the overall ecosystem. Dealing with that can become yet another matter for smart farm management.
What about the effect on ag labor?
Farming and ranching are labor-intensive activities. Crops such as potatoes, onions and other fruits and vegetables are especially dependent upon human workers, not just machines and technology.
Imagine running eight potato-harvesting lines of 60 workers each at harvest, explains Walter. Now imagine working a 12- or 14-hour shift in high temperatures and smoky conditions, when it’s tough to catch your breath and you are losing fluids rapidly. Even increasing the number and length of rest breaks doesn’t make it easy. Now multiply that situation across all sorts of the fruit, vegetable and other crops grown the areas most vulnerable to the effects of wildfires.
The problem isn’t unique to the Pacific Northwest or other locales adjacent to major fires. When AirNow, a coalition of U.S. government agencies, daily reports air-quality indices and shows “unhealthy“ and “seriously unhealthy air” across widespread parts of the United States, it may well be time to heed Walter’s advice and shift more attention to the human dimension of the wildfire problem. (See an AirNow report here.)
One of the largest effects of wildfires on agriculture may be the added complications they create in finding the volume of workers needed to make the system function. Labor already has become of the biggest challenges to our food system. Wildfires may add fuel to that kind of fire, too. And working forced to sit out until the smoke clears
could lead to a loss of harvest in a localized crop.
Are these wildfires at all preventable?
Cameron acknowledges the widespread concern that climate change may be fueling more wildfires. Based upon his decades of experience in farming and farm management, he adds another important element to the causal mix that makes the explanation for more wildfires a bit more complicated than just climate change.
“The people are the story,” says Walter, “not the crops.”
“I call it the domestication of people,” he says with a laugh. “People are out and about a lot more than before. They like to get out in the country and walk and hike and camp and other things. That’s fine. But it also creates a lot more opportunities for accidents.” Fires need an ignition source, he points out, like a spark, or lightning, or even a smoldering cigarette or campfire.
Farmers and ranchers in areas susceptible to fires have developed their own management techniques to deal with what they see as just another element of risk that comes with farming. Producers plan and prepare, Wysocki points out. (To better understand how fires spread so quickly, watch this video.)
At harvest, when dry conditions are common, Wysocki notes, producers have water trucks standing by in case of fire. They also band together on “Red Flag” days – high risk days, with warnings of an increased risk of wildfire in the next 12-24 hours. When the red flag is out, farming communities stand ready to respond to any sign of smoke with combines, tractors and water wagons to keep any outbreak as small and isolated as possible.
All three farming experts agree that wildfires are cause for concern – but not over-reaction, especially about our food. Spot shortages of certain commodities and food products may occur as a result of proximity to an actual fire, they conclude. But any problems will be situational rather than systemic, as current evidence suggests that wildfires are unlikely to have a substantial impact on our food supply in terms of quality, cost, or long-term damage to natural resources. Any disruptions in the system would likely be temporary and limited to specific food products in areas adjacent to major wildfire zones.
The Bottom Line
Farmers and ranchers in or near fire-affected areas will continue to address the wildfire effects by closely monitoring conditions and adapting their management practices accordingly, just as they have done for decades. Rest assured, consumers can have confidence in the safety of our food. While living with hazy skies may be a concern, the impact on our food remains minimal.