More frequent and intense wildfires in Nevada and surrounding states are a clear sign that the climate crisis is here. Keep reading to learn more about how climate change is fueling stronger wildfires across the region, what you can do to keep yourself and others safe and healthy, and what your elected officials can do to ensure a livable state for today’s residents and generations to come.
How Climate Change is Fueling Nevada Wildfires
Climate change is already leading to a hotter and drier Nevada. Since 1970, Nevada has warmed about 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit on average across the state, a change that would normally take place over thousands of years. While this may not sound like much of an increase to some, this warming is already having effects on our climate and health, resulting in drought conditions that set the stage for enormous wildfire risks starting earlier in the spring and lasting later into the fall. In a warning about the 2021 wildfire season issued this May, Governor Sisolak stated: “As the impacts of climate change continue to compound, wildfires are predicted to increase in both frequency and intensity in the coming years. Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack and earlier spring snowmelt are creating longer and more intense dry seasons.” And it’s not just Nevada: globally, 77 percent of countries experienced an increase in human exposure to wildfires between 2015-2018, compared to 2001–2014.
How Wildfires and Smoke Impact our Health and Safety
Many Nevadans are all too familiar with the dangers of wildfires and the challenges of evacuation. Every year, people around the region are injured and lose their lives due to wildfires, and even those who can safely evacuate face risks upon return. There can be injuries during the post-fire clean up, water quality issues associated with melted plastic pipes, and mental health implications from the trauma.
Breathing smoke from nearby wildfires also results in negative health impacts. This smoke includes many harmful contaminants including fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), one of the deadliest air pollutants known to humans. Research shows that health consequences can include respiratory infections, cardiac arrest, lung cancer, stroke, low birth weight, mental health conditions, and exacerbated asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Even just one hour of smoke exposure can affect our lungs and hearts, and these consequences can reach people far beyond the direct area endangered by the fire. A NRDC study found that the area affected by wildfire smoke in the United States can be nearly 50 times larger than the area burned directly by fires—a phenomenon many Nevadans experienced last summer, when outdoor activities were limited by dangerous smoke from wildfires around the West.
Children, older adults, pregnant women, people with preexisting cardiopulmonary disease, communities of color, economically disadvantaged communities, and people with preexisting chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, and obesity are all especially vulnerable to the air pollution that wildfires cause. NRDC research also shows that wildfire smoke represents a major occupational health risk for firefighters and other outdoor workers.
How to Stay Safe during Wildfire Season
From the Environmental Protection Agency’s wildfire smoke guide to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on reducing health risks from wildfire smoke, there are many places to turn for information. A few essential tips include:
- Prepare for wildfires by confirming community evacuation plans and gathering emergency supplies
- Monitor the news about current evacuation orders and follow the instructions of local officials about when and where to evacuate
- Check local air quality data and keep an eye on news and health warnings about smoke
- Protect yourself during fire cleanup, which can expose you to ash and chemicals that can irritate your eyes, nose, lungs, or skin
What Nevada’s Elected Officials Can Do
The good news is that Nevada has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 28% by 2025, 45% by 2030, and to net-zero by 2050. By reducing carbon pollution, Nevada can help reduce the likelihood of severe climate impacts, including more severe wildfires. However, meeting this threshold will require tackling every polluting sector, from the cars we drive to the furnaces and water heaters in our homes to the electricity we use to power our lives. While the movement in favor of these actions is growing—from young people to health professionals to social justice advocates—the fossil fuel industry and their affiliated lobbyists are voraciously campaigning to delay climate action.
Following a busy legislative session in which our representatives passed major bills to reduce emissions in power and transportation but not building sectors, we’ve got more work to do. For example, after legislators passed ambitious legislation to align electric utility plans and investments with state climate goals, NV Energy will get to work investing $100 million in new electric vehicle chargers and electric buses.
As we explore and implement these solutions and many more, one thing is clear: the time for incremental change has passed. We are calling on our state leaders to get to work implementing the policies we need to radically reduce carbon emissions and pollution, especially for the low-income communities and communities of color that experience the worst of these crises. Delaying action will only lead to more extreme weather and wildfires, to dirtier air, and to other climate change impacts that put the lives of all Nevadans at risk.