The United States wildfires are our climate change reality check

Written by MacKenZie Rumage

Looking at photos of the sky in San Francisco, I almost thought the photographers were using filters on their photos. There was no way that the sky looked that orange and hazy. How could there be no sun, or even a cloud? But these apocalyptic-looking photos show the reality in western United States as people face devastating wildfires, which have burned over 900,000 acres in Oregon and has left Portland, Oregon with the worst air quality in the world.  Oregon governor Kate Brown said on September 9th, “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.” However, it’s not just Oregon; the fires have destroyed over 4.5 million acres in California, and five of the ten largest wildfires in California’s history are currently burning. The state still has four months to go in its annual fire season.

The human cost is great and is still growing. In Oregon, 500,000 people have been forced to evacuate. In California, twenty-five people have died while over 14,000 firefighters (including some prisoners recruited as firefighters) have been working to suppress the fires. 14,000 firefighters sound like a lot, but it has been difficult to recruit fire crews because of the current pandemic, and first responders have had to take additional precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. Firefighters face a particularly dangerous situation because it is difficult for them to social distance while working, but they also face a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of the smoke. These problems together create a highly volatile situation in which people across western states cannot focus on protecting themselves from the virus because of the fires, but cannot forget that it exists.

Climate change is a major factor behind how devastating these fires have been. California, Washington and Oregon in particular have faced both record-breaking heat waves and severe drought this summer. These conditions made the vegetation dry out and become more flammable, resulting in the western states having optimal conditions for a wildfire to spread. These fires are typically started by human causes, which can be anything from a downed power line to a cigarette butt to even pyrotechnics from a gender reveal party. The extreme heat in the west has only made these fires more destructive, creating conditions hot and dry enough for areas that usually burn at different times during fire seasons to burn at the same time, which is part of why these outbreaks of wildfires are so uniquely devastating. Scientists at Stanford University published research last month that found the number of days with extreme wildfire weather in California has more than doubled since the 1980s, mainly because of higher temperatures drying out vegetation. Noah Diffenbaugh, one of the scientists behind that article, told the Los Angeles Times that “even with no change in the frequency of strong wind events, even with no change in the frequency of lightning, the risk of wildfire and risk of large, rapidly growing wildfires goes up as a result of the effect of that warming.”

California governor Gavin Newsom recognizes the connection between climate change and his state’s fires and has taken aim at climate change deniers, saying, “If you do not believe in science, I hope you believe in observed evidence. […] We’re in the midst of a climate crisis. We are experiencing weather conditions the likes of which we’ve never experienced in our lifetime.” Newsom is right, extreme weather conditions and natural disasters like these fires or the multiple hurricanes in the southern United States cannot be written off as random phenomena. We cannot even say that our current pandemic has nothing to do with climate change, because scientists warned for years that a deadly pandemic such as this one could come along because of humans’ exploitation of the environment. We no longer have to look toward far-away lands for evidence of climate change — we can look at our own homes and experience the effects for ourselves. It is not enough to acknowledge that climate change exists, or the connection between it and these natural disasters we have experienced. It is time to fully address and prioritize climate change. It has to play a part in how we vote, travel, spend our money, treat the environment around us and more generally how we each live our lives. There is no aspect of life that climate change will not touch, so we have to prepare for it and combat it while we can.

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