Scientists explain why we're seeing this astonishing increase in wildfires.

When I hear about a wildfire, I usually think it's out west somewhere.

The West has been hit by some incredibly devastating wildfires in the last several years, such as the one that hit Fort McMurray back in May or the Long Draw fire in Oregon back in 2012.

But the latest fires aren't just out west. They're in Alabama too.

A firetruck in Kimberly, Alabama on October 10th. Photo from AP Photo/Brynn Anderson.


Northern Alabama is going through an incredible drought and that's made it really easy for fires to start and spread. As of this writing, there have been over 700 wildfires in Alabama in the last 30 days alone.

"You know it's dry when a bush hog hitting a rock will start a fire," CBS quoted forestry commission member Coleen Vansant as saying, although most of the fires are actually caused by people, through things like arson or debris fires.

Residents and workers have been able to fight them back, but the state's not out of the woods yet. Fire crews from the southern part of the state are coming up north to help.

Zooming out, wildfires are on the increase across the United States.

A firefighter in California, 2016. Photo from Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Wildfires are four times as common now as they were in the 1970s and they burn six times as much land. This year alone, nearly 5 million acres of forests have burned in the West. That's about the size of New Jersey. Last year, it was 9 million acres.

Fire can be a natural part of an ecosystem and some amount of regular small burns are expected from stuff like lightning strikes. But this expansion is something else. What the heck is going on?

Part of the answer might be how our climate's changing.

I grew up in Texas and I can't remember a single Fourth of July that was wet enough for fireworks. Anyone who lives out West knows that heat, drought, and fire go hand in hand.

A firefighter in California. Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images.

So, what's causing all that aridity? A recent report pointed at our changing climate as a major part of the problem. There were other factors, like natural changes in the weather and other human activities, but about half of the increase in fire-ready conditions came from climate change.

"A lot of people are throwing around the words climate change and fire," said lead author John Abatzoglou in a press release. "We wanted to put some numbers on it."

Experts think the upward trend is likely to increase, and some scientists are predicting that droughts out west could last a lot longer — maybe for decades.

Addressing climate change could help head off this increase in wildfires — and give us other benefits too.

Natural disasters are expensive; in 2015, the federal government spent $2 billion on firefighting. And clean energy doesn't need to cost more than current power plants. In fact, at one point, Germany was actually paying consumers to use electricity.

The simplest and most effective thing we can all do is use our political power to vote, express that we need to address these changes. In the meantime, we can keep the people who are battling these fires in our thoughts.

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Last month, the Chicago Public Library system became the largest in the country to eliminate late fees thanks to Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot.

While the move, which was implemented October 1, was intended to "remove unfair barriers to basic library access, especially for youth and low-income patrons," it had another positive outcome. Since the removal of overdue fees, along with the elimination of any outstanding charges on people's accounts, libraries across the city saw a surge in the return of overdue books over the last several weeks.

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According to a press release from Lightfoot, late fees rarely have the impact they're intended to. "Research from other fine-free systems has indicated that fines do not increase return rates, and further that the cost of collecting and maintaining overdue fees often outweighs the revenue generated by them."

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