“It was like driving through hell,” was one of the reactions after a midnight evacuation last week in the state of Oregon. After looking at the scenes in California, Oregon, and Washington, you might even compare the situation to an apocalypse with the sky in California turning completely orange. Over the last few weeks, these states have been faced with the worst wildfires in their history. The coming months are not looking good either as a hot and dry autumn promises more destruction, evacuations, and even more blackouts.
Every year these states experience wildfires, so this is nothing new. It happens so often that the people in California call it the “wildfire season”. Although many of these wildfires were started by lightning, climate change is making the fires larger and more intense. With global warming becoming worse, it is expected that the wildfires will be even more destructive in the coming years. There was a recent article in Bloomberg reporting that climate change has created prime conditions for these massive infernos. It is essential to understand why the wildfire season in California, Oregon, and Washington is so devastating this year, as the consequences are enormous: Thousands of destroyed homes, large-scale evacuations, dangerous levels of air quality, and even people losing their lives.
Building up to the raging wildfires
Why are the wildfires so devastating this year? A lot has to do with the build-up of the wildfire season. California has endured a long drought over the last few months and was facing severe heat waves before the wildfires started. This year, the U.S. Drought Monitor classified 80% of California as abnormally dry and that 54% suffered from drought. Next to this drought, the heatwaves were so severe that on the 16th of August, the hottest temperature on Earth was recorded in Death Valley, California, with an astonishing heat of 54.4 degrees Celsius.
This extreme weather led to the drying out of vegetation and forests, which is ideal fuel for wildfires. When you add lightning strikes hitting everywhere in the state, you create the worst wildfire season in the history of California. Although the season is not over yet, three of the four largest wildfires ever seen in California took place this year, destroying already more than 12.700 square kilometers of land.
California’s Climate Tinderbox
Since 1932, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) records the largest wildfires in the state. According to their list of the Top 20 Largest California Wildfires, the top 5 largest fires all happened over the last three years. This is already very daunting and becomes even more so given the dire forecasts for the coming decades. But why are these wildfires getting worse over time?
Climate change is playing a crucial role in these fires. Rising temperatures and extreme weather events such as heatwaves and drought are all exacerbating the wildfires in California. Carbon Brief shows that in a climate scenario where we limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (one of the Paris Agreement goals), the length of heatwaves increases by 26 days in the West Coast of the United States over the coming decades relative to the period 1996-2015. Furthermore, since 1980, the average temperature in California has increased with 1 degrees Celsius, doubling the number of days with extreme wildfire conditions.
A changing climate is also increasing the amount of land that can burn, as a drier area is much more susceptible to wildfires. On top of this, less precipitation leads to more severe dry seasons before the actual wildfire season starts, building up the fuel again for devastating wildfires. These heat waves, as well as increased droughts, less precipitation, and increased extreme weather events such as lightning storms all add up to the situation California is in right now. This process will happen every year and will only get worse.
Managing the risks
One thought you might have now is: Things can’t burn twice, right? Most people would say that you would have reduced risk of wildfires for at least a few years, as there is nothing to burn after a massive wildfire. However, a climate scientist at the University of California tells us that vegetation just has enough time to grow back and support a fire before the next wildfire season starts.
So what to do? Over 14,800 firefighters are currently battling the fires in the state, but they can only limit the damage after the wildfires started. You could use controlled burning of specific areas, such that wildfires do not spread as much as they do now. However, this may not work as well as you would think. A regional forester from the California Forest Service says that new fire starts are likely given the dry conditions. Furthermore, a few days ago the authorities reported roughly 85 fires tearing across the state. As the drying and warming is affecting almost all vegetation and fires starting in multiple places independent of each other, controlled burning will not solve the problem.
The state of California is looking into controlled burns to limit the wildfire risk. Although controlled burns has its limitations, it does stop the landscape growing thick with vegetation that will dry out every summer. The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, acknowledged failings in forest management in recent decades, but also said: “That’s one point, but it’s not the point.”
The point the governor is talking about became clear quickly after: “This is a climate damn emergency. This is real, and it’s happening.” As the governor of California is saying, we should manage the risks by looking at the source that starts these wildfires, which is rising temperatures and increasing extreme weather. Governor Newsom highlighted their efforts to tackle climate change, but there is no overarching climate plan in the United States. Without a plan and a strategy, there is not much California can do against the source of these wildfires.
To stop climate emergencies such as the wildfires in California, the United States should have a long-term strategy in place to cut carbon emissions. Europe, for instance, is aiming to become climate-neutral by 2050, with a long-term strategy in place in the European Green Deal. However, with President Trump in the United States, there is no plan. You cannot have the United States, the world’s second-biggest economy, opting-out from the Paris Agreement and expect the climate emergencies to stop by themselves.
This makes the presidential election in November 2020 even more interesting as Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, does have a plan to tackle climate change. He ensures the United States achieving a 100% clean energy economy and reaching net-zero emissions no later than 2050. As such, Trump recently telling us that the United States presidential election in November 2020 is the most important election in the history of the country is very true, but maybe not only for the reasons he is putting forward.