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Fire Danger and Respiratory Health Issues Are Urgent Concerns For West

fire burning trees on mountain
Matt Howard via Unsplash

A recent federal climate change report offers a grim outlook on the future. More wildfires, poorer air-quality and an increase in heat-related illnesses are expected. KUNR’s Anh Gray spoke with Tim Brown, an expert from the Desert Research Institute, to get his perspective on what global warming means for the health and safety of Nevadans.

Climatogy expert Tim Brown is the Director of the Western Regional Climate Center. He says one key indicator of climate change in the West, and specifically in Nevada, is the warming of nighttime temperatures.

“I think the big way that we’ve seen, really since the 1980s in particular, is the warming trend across the West and in particular the nighttime warming,” Brown explains. Over the last few decades, he says scientists have found that the nighttime temperatures have increased by one to one-and-a-half degrees.

Although that uptick might seem slight, Brown explains that it has significant ramifications on the region.

“For Nevada, for a couple of reasons, it’s important. One from the wildfire perspective,” Brown says. “The warmer air also means drier air, and that means drier fuels, and an increase in inflammability, so we can have more extreme fire behavior during the night as a result of this warming.”

Brown says residents also bear an economic burden when increased heat becomes an issue.

“And I think the second way it could be impactful just on residents [is] with air conditioning costs, and if they don’t have air conditioning, harder to cool down their homes during the nighttime,” Brown explains.

Tim Brown is with the Desert Research Institute and is the director of the Western Regional Climate Center. This is a photo of him taking about fire danger.
Credit Desert Research Institute
Tim Brown is with the Desert Research Institute and is the director of the Western Regional Climate Center. This is a photo of him taking about fire danger.

Demographics can also be a factor as more communities become more densely populated and expand into what Brown refers to as the “wildland-urban interface,” which makes those areas more vulnerable to wildfires.  The report also outlines the public health risks of climate change. In the West, smoky conditions and poorer air-quality, resulting from wildfires, can also induce or exacerbate respiratory health concerns like asthma.

“Well, having all these people here means there’s more of an increased risk to smoke exposure,” Brown says, “and wildfire smoke through the flame particulates of that smoke are known to cause various health impacts.”

As more communities in the Western region are becoming susceptible to wildfire hazards, Brown says the scientific community has already been aware of the potentially dangerous consequences of global warming. But what has surprised him in the most recent federal report is the dire speed in which climate change is occurring.

“When that first climate change models were coming out, and was starting to show this happening, it seemed like there was more time. But what this latest report is showing us is that we don’t have that much time, and everyone needs to start taking this very seriously.”

The federal climate change report was the collaboration of more than a dozen agencies and hundreds of scientists.

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.
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