In the lead-up to Monday’s highly anticipated solar eclipse, there have been countless articles about how the once-in-lifetime event might harm eyeballs, cameras, and neck muscles. But now comes a warning that the eclipse will increase the risk of an enormous wildfire—one that could lead to unprecedented deaths.
In an op-ed last week, fire scientist and University of Idaho associate professor Crystal Kolden wrote of the dangers that outsiders pose as they travel to remote areas of the American West to view the eclipse. As travelers set up camp in Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming—said to be the best for cloud-free viewing—these arid landscapes will likely see “more human ignitions on one weekend than they have over the last century,” Kolden wrote. These vegetated areas have experienced warm, wet winters of tremendous growth, followed by a hot, dry summer that’s dried it out and primed it for fire. Combine that with thousands upon thousands of tourist campers unaware of wildfire risks, Kolden said the result could be disastrous.
I fear hundred to thousands of tiny fires started by eclipse-watchers being blown up by dry, hot winds that are common in the west this time of year. I fear people panicking and trying to evacuate, then getting into accidents that block narrow, single-lane mountain and rangeland roads. I fear hundreds of people trapped in their cars, overtaken by flames, and no way to rescue them or suppression resources to save them. I fear we will finally see the wildfire that kills over 100 people, or many, many more.
In short, I fear a disaster; an eclipse apocalypse. I really hope I’m wrong.
There are a number of important factors driving Kolden’s concern, including inadequate firefighting equipment due to “years of downsizing and outsourcing and reducing the aerial firefighting fleet.” She speculated firefighters are also tired and overworked from the intense start to wildfire season out West. But most importantly, she said, “it’s just too hot and dry, the product of a changing climate that has yielded record-breaking heat waves nearly every year.”
There are, of course, a few errant conspiracy theorists who think the solar eclipse will cause the actual end of humanity as we know it. But Kolden’s wildfire apocalypse is a real possibility. The Oregon Department of Forestry has published a guide to avoid starting wildfires. Eclipse watchers out West, please read up.