Wildfires ravage the West Coast: Where do we go from here?

This image is not from a science-fiction movie about a far-off planet destroyed by the elements. This is a picture of the damage caused by the West Coast wildfires this month. One San Francisco resident stated that it “looks like the apocalypse right now. This is a once in a generation event.” 

The sky holds a variety of burning oranges and piercing reds, and the air is thick with smoke. California, Oregon and Washington are known for occasional wildfires, but the fires this year have surpassed all prior years in severity and intensity. The current amount of damage on the West Coast is similar to that of the Australian bushfires that occurred at the beginning of this year, where a total of 444,789,689 acres burned over the course of five months. Even the most knowledgeable fire experts are calling this an unprecedented fire season for the western United States. 

There were a total of 36 new fires on Saturday, September 12 alone. The largest active fire is the August Complex Fire that has burned 877,477 acres since August 16 and is only 28 percent contained as of mid-September. This entire summer showed record-breaking temperatures with little humidity and precipitation. These factors, combined with a lack of fire safety, create the perfect climate for wildfires. Tim Arango from the New York Times wrote that this “makes kindling out of forests.” Nearly every region in this area has seen an increased need for aid and help to tame the fires since emergency services are strained. In California alone, there have been 16,750 firefighters battling 29 major wildfires throughout the past few months, with a total of 3.3 million acres burned in 2020 alone. This is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. 

The reason that these fires are so severe is up for debate; however, a number of scientists and government officials have correlated the unusual intensity of this season’s wildfires with climate change. The Trump administration has repeatedly denied the presence of climate change, stating that the fires were caused by a failure of western states to properly manage their forests. The reality is in that region, the majority of the forests are maintained by the federal government. This has led leaders in California to outwardly criticize President Trump for these statements. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti stated, “Denial doesn’t work when it comes to climate, the cost of denial is that people lose their lives and their livelihoods.”

“This is climate change and this is an administration that’s put its head in the sand,” Garcetti said. President Trump visited northern California on Monday, September 14, to assess the damage and offer federal aid. Many have been forced to evacuate their homes under an emergency order, and they have no way of knowing if their homes are still standing. At least 35 people have died: 24 from California, 10 in Oregon, and one child in Washington state. A number of people are missing as well.

The weather is not making the situation any better. Windy and dry conditions are keeping the fires active and increasing the amount of smoke production. This is causing extremely poor air quality and dismal breathing conditions across the area. Official statements say that air quality in northern California is being classified as unhealthy to hazardous, and from unhealthy to moderate in southern California. This can cause serious respiratory problems, not to mention that the U.S. is still experiencing a global pandemic. Dr. Mary Prunicki is the director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University. When asked about a potential end to the smoke pollution being caused by the fires, she stated, “So many factors affect air quality that it is practically impossible to predict when and where the air on the West Coast will be safe.” Immediate health concerns include cardiac and respiratory distress, while long-term effects can be even more serious and worse with prolonged exposure. 

This region is also very mountainous, which keeps smoke condensed in the same area for a longer period of time, instead of being able to rise up and spread out. Jennifer Balch, fire scientist, and earth lab director at the University of Colorado Boulder stated that “firefighters alone are not enough. Change in climate and converting landscapes greatly contributes to the amount of damage caused by these fires.” Balch also stated that wildfires are also very responsive to warming temperatures. As temperatures rise, the intensity and heat index of fires will rise as well. It is also important to note that wildfires are preventable and are largely caused by human activity. This is why promoting fire prevention education is so important. However, it is hard to say at this point if anything could have prevented this from happening, given the fact that fires have not occurred at this level before.

The wildfires on the West Coast make climate change even more of a key issue in the upcoming presidential election. Presidential nominee Joe Biden criticized President Trump for his overall climate change denial and lack of attention, calling him “a climate arsonist.” It appears that the world and its catastrophic natural disasters, scorching droughts and torrential downpours can no longer afford to argue about causes and fault; the world needs a solution. The situation becomes less and less political and more personal as people’s quality of life is affected and damaged. Scientists warn that if serious climate action is not taken soon, there will be substantial long-term consequences that coming generations will have to deal with. People must come to terms with the fact that the world is changing, and change requires a response. 

Alli Mitchell ('22) is a Staff Writer for the Beyond section. She is majoring in Political Science and double minoring in Art History and Environmental Studies. She can usually be found with a cup of coffee in the library or at LJs. On-campus, she is a member of the Alpha Gamma Phi sorority, works in the Biology Department and at Cup and Chaucer, and is involved in the Phelps Scholars Program. In her free time, she enjoys reading, yoga, writing, hammocking, photography, and spending time with friends.

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