Since July, the West Coast of the United States has been experiencing an unprecedented series of wildfires, which have been recognised as the worst wildfires in the past 18 years. Currently, firefighters are battling 106 wildfires across the western coast, the majority of which are concentrated in California and Oregon. The formation of wildfires is usually caused by dry seasonal winds along the west coast but this summer, these winds were aided by a heatwave.
The resulting impact has been especially devastating in California, which has seen 7,606 blazes this year, compared with 4,972 in 2019. These wildfires have burned through 4 million acres of California – double the previous annual record. Earlier this month, the August complex fire expanded beyond 1 million acres and is now larger than the state of Rhode Island. Thus, elevating its classification from a ‘megafire’ to a ‘gigafire’ – the first to ever occur in modern history.
The wildfires have had a catastrophic impact on the west coast, with their economic cost exceeding an estimated $20 billion (£15.5 billion). More than 30 people have been killed, thousands of houses destroyed, tens of thousands of people either evacuated or left homeless, and dozens remain missing. Additionally, the clouds of smoke emitted from the fires are so large that they have crossed the US and the Atlantic Ocean and reached Northern Europe, according to scientists from the European Commission’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service – and are expected to do so again in the coming weeks. Plumes of smoke have blanketed the west coast, at times obscuring the sun.
Smoke emitted by the fires has also resulted in a higher amount of carbon emissions. Douglas Morton, chief of the biospheric sciences laboratory at NASA Goddard, stated that 2020 was the highest year of carbon emissions for California since records began in 1997. Furthermore, the 2020 fire emissions have significantly outpaced the annual totals for other years, despite this season not yet ending.
A further consequence of the wildfires is the huge amount of air pollution that they have produced. Pollution from wildfires contains noxious chemicals and soot, which is highly dangerous to human health. Air quality in Oregon, Washington, and California is said to be some of the unhealthiest on the planet. Specifically, in some parts of Oregon, air quality is so hazardous that it went beyond the scale of Oregon’s Air Quality Index. In these areas, pollution has reached historic levels particularly in 5 of its cities: Portland, Eugene, Bend, Medford, and Klamath Falls.
Dishearteningly, although California’s peak fire season usually runs until October, it shows no signs of receding as yet. Some light to moderate rains are predicted in the north this week, but they are unlikely to end the fire season.
NASA has cited a combination of factors as responsible for the intensity and scale of the fires. The heatwave, alongside unusually dry air, fierce winds and drought in some parts, has exacerbated the fires. However, climate change is a major factor for their record-breaking intensity, with rising temperatures and prolonged drought causing vegetation and soils to lose moisture. According to an analysis by Climate Central, big wildfires are now 3 times more common on the west coast than in the 1970s, and the fire season is 3 months longer. Experts predict that the 2020 fire season is only the beginning of increased fires over the 21st century, as temperatures will continue to climb due to the release of greenhouse gases from human activity.
The US Government faces widespread criticisms of inaction on the back of this fire season – while President Trump was quick to dispatch federal police to crush the Portland protests, he failed to send any help to extinguish the wildfires occurring in the same city. Mr Trump also blamed poor forest management for the scale of the blazes, despite overwhelming consensus by scientists that climate change is responsible for their growing prevalence and intensity.
This blatant denial of scientific evidence persists on a broader scale, where the administration has been criticised by climate activists for halting and actively discouraging efforts to combat climate change and climate activism generally. There is evidence that the government has impeded research efforts around human-caused climate change. This evidence highlights the disruption of research projects and the significantly diminishing role of science in US federal policymaking.
Additionally, a 2018 report by the Washington Post states, that the Trump administration already predicted a 7-degree rise in global temperatures by 2100 as a result of human activity. Despite these predictions clearly acknowledging the effects of climate change, there remains evidence that the administration has taken steps to actively encourage the fossil fuel industry. Regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission have been reported to help corporations block shareholders from voting on climate-related corporate resolutions; while last year, the White House barred California from setting its own auto emissions standards.
David Sirota at The Guardian argues that these climate-denying assertions on a national level actively influence decision-making processes, which would not just sabotage the climate movement but carry a significant, long-term, human cost. As evidenced from the wildfires, the climate crisis will only prolong and intensify natural disasters in the coming decades – and in order to reduce the human impact, political leaders will need to take decisive steps to reduce emissions and pass reforms that actively encourage the climate movement.
California wildfires spawn first modern ‘gigafire’ in history: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/06/california-wildfires-gigafire-first
California and Oregon 2020 wildfires in maps, graphics and images: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-54180049
Historic fires devastate the US Pacific Coast: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/147277/historic-fires-devastate-the-us-pacific-coast
America is at war with deadly wildfires: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/19/america-deadly-wildfires-trump-inferno
Trump administration sees a 7-degree rise in global temperatures by 2100: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-administration-sees-a-7-degree-rise-in-global-temperatures-by-2100/2018/09/27/b9c6fada-bb45-11e8-bdc0-90f81cc58c5d_story.html
How Trump is sidelining researchers and their work: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/28/climate/trump-administration-war-on-science.html?auth=login-email&login=email
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Author: Nikita Nandanwad
Editor: Kelsey Greeff
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik