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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.

All images provided by Adewole Adamson

It begins with more inclusive conversations at a patient level

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Adewole Adamson, MD, of the University of Texas, Austin, aims to create more equity in health care by gathering data from more diverse populations by using artificial intelligence (AI), a type of machine learning. Dr. Adamson’s work is funded by the American Cancer Society (ACS), an organization committed to advancing health equity through research priorities, programs and services for groups who have been marginalized.

Melanoma became a particular focus for Dr. Adamson after meeting Avery Smith, who lost his wife—a Black woman—to the deadly disease.

melanoma,  melanoma for dark skin Avery Smith (left) and Adamson (sidenote)

This personal encounter, coupled with multiple conversations with Black dermatology patients, drove Dr. Adamson to a concerning discovery: as advanced as AI is at detecting possible skin cancers, it is heavily biased.

To understand this bias, it helps to first know how AI works in the early detection of skin cancer, which Dr. Adamson explains in his paper for the New England Journal of Medicine (paywall). The process uses computers that rely on sets of accumulated data to learn what healthy or unhealthy skin looks like and then create an algorithm to predict diagnoses based on those data sets.

This process, known as supervised learning, could lead to huge benefits in preventive care.

After all, early detection is key to better outcomes. The problem is that the data sets don’t include enough information about darker skin tones. As Adamson put it, “everything is viewed through a ‘white lens.’”

“If you don’t teach the algorithm with a diverse set of images, then that algorithm won’t work out in the public that is diverse,” writes Adamson in a study he co-wrote with Smith (according to a story in The Atlantic). “So there’s risk, then, for people with skin of color to fall through the cracks.”

Tragically, Smith’s wife was diagnosed with melanoma too late and paid the ultimate price for it. And she was not an anomaly—though the disease is more common for White patients, Black cancer patients are far more likely to be diagnosed at later stages, causing a notable disparity in survival rates between non-Hispanics whites (90%) and non-Hispanic blacks (66%).

As a computer scientist, Smith suspected this racial bias and reached out to Adamson, hoping a Black dermatologist would have more diverse data sets. Though Adamson didn’t have what Smith was initially looking for, this realization ignited a personal mission to investigate and reduce disparities.

Now, Adamson uses the knowledge gained through his years of research to help advance the fight for health equity. To him, that means not only gaining a wider array of data sets, but also having more conversations with patients to understand how socioeconomic status impacts the level and efficiency of care.

“At the end of the day, what matters most is how we help patients at the patient level,” Adamson told Upworthy. “And how can you do that without knowing exactly what barriers they face?”

american cancer society, skin cacner treatment"What matters most is how we help patients at the patient level."https://www.kellydavidsonstudio.com/

The American Cancer Society believes everyone deserves a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat, and survive cancer—regardless of how much money they make, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, gender identity, their disability status, or where they live. Inclusive tools and resources on the Health Equity section of their website can be found here. For more information about skin cancer, visit cancer.org/skincancer.

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