Irish Examiner view: Wildfires are canary in the coalmine for climate change

Irish experts warn that air pollution will damage our health nationally if we respond to rising oil and gas prices by burning more solid fuels
Irish Examiner view: Wildfires are canary in the coalmine for climate change

A large gorse fire at Boleagh between Ballydehob and Bantry in West Cork earlier this month. We can be grateful that the wildfire season, while certainly in evidence in Ireland, did not wreak the havoc here that it did in Europe and North America. Picture: Andy Gibson.

As today marks the equinox, the astronomical date of the transition to autumn, we can reflect upon our summer heatwave and be grateful that the wildfire season, while certainly in evidence, did not wreak the havoc here that it did in Europe and North America.

Under the meteorological definition, autumn — the season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness” as described by the Romantic poet John Keats — commenced on September 1. But our sense is, particularly following a long, hot, summer, that the leaves are changing and dropping later this year.

Across the world, but not yet in Ireland, the canary in the coalmine is the extent to which citizens must encounter unhealthy wildfire smoke wafting thousands of miles across continents and turning back decades of advantage brought through the application of various clean-air acts. 

This may not be apparent in our own republic, for now, but visit the Iberian Peninsula, or the western US, or western Canada, or eastern Australia, and you will experience something vastly, and frighteningly, different.

A new study in the US concludes that millions of Americans are routinely exposed to toxic particulates from wildfires. Six of the seven largest conflagrations in the history of California have taken place since 2020. Last summer, New York registered some of the worst air quality in the world due to smoke drifting across from the west.

In Europe, intense blazes in Spain, France, Greece, and Portugal have produced the highest emission levels for 15 years. 

The probability of catastrophic wildfire events around the globe will have increased by 30% by the end of the century, even if planet-heating gases are rapidly cut, according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Irish experts warn that air pollution will damage our health nationally if we respond to rising oil and gas prices by burning more solid fuels, something which we are already doing.

Research links the inhalation of wildfire smoke to increased rates of heart attack, particularly with people aged over 65. Given that the skies over San Francisco Bay turned orange two years ago, while they became opaque in New York last year, we ignore this manifestation of climate change with a reckless disregard. 

Keep that bucket of water close when the fires arise again in Ireland. And perhaps a second bucket.

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