The West Coast is on fire. From Seattle to San Diego, persistent conflagrations have taken hold of the region, along with heatwaves not witnessed since temperature readings have been recorded.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee are each pointing to climate change as the reason why as much as 4.6 million acres have been charred, resulting in towns destroyed and dozens of deaths.
At the beginning of the week, 32 people had perished among the three states. Brown told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that while the exact causes of each blaze remain under investigation, they erupted amid a combination of poor weather conditions and “decades of [federal government] mismanagement of the nation’s forests, and the effects of climate change.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire protection said this week that the August Complex Fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history, had burned a minimum of 880,000 acres in Mendocino, Humbolt, Del Norte and Trinity counties and is only at 30-percent containment.
At press time, the North Complex fire in Plumas and Butte counties had burned an estimated 280,000 acres, becoming by far the largest and most deadly fire in California history. The LNU Lightning Complex, August, Tatham and Hills fires have resulted in more than a dozen deaths.
In Washington, Inslee has described the conditions in the state as “apocalyptic” as wildfires have burned in excess of 525,000 acres.
“We know that climate change is making fires start easier, spread faster and intensify,” Inslee said. “And it is maddening right now that when we have this cosmic challenge to our communities—the entire West Coast of the United States is on fire—to have a president to deny that…these communities are climate fires.”
In less than one month, California has experienced six of the 20 largest wildfires in its history. More than one million acres of landscape have burned. All-time temperatures records from the mountains, dessert and extending to the the sea have fallen, leaving in its wake some of the worst air quality because of heat-induced smog and fire smoke. A persistent plume of soot has blanketed the Southland in ways not seen since the 1970s. A stifling heatwave saw temperatures reach a record 121 degrees in Woodland Hills and an unprecedented 108 degrees in South Los Angeles.
In California, a Mediterranean climate sets up ideal conditions for fire and is only worsened by climate change. That translates into long, hot and dry summer with only and handful of winter storms bringing needed rain and snow. As the climate warms, snow melts earlier making for drier plants in summer and a delayed rainy season, therefore extending the fire season.
Another way that climate change has worsened wildfire danger is that the jet stream (the river of air that moves storms and daily weather patterns) tends to slow down resulting in more dry periods. The result is that California could lose more vital drenchings during February and March, thereby leading to more fires and more smoke in a time when people are already hit by the coronavirus.
This week, President Trump visited Northern California and heard from Newsom and a panel of experts who said the ongoing wildfires, past droughts, and powerful storms leading to historic flooding can be traced to climate change.
“The ‘hots’ are getting hotter and the ‘dry’ period is getting a lot drier,” Newsom said. For his part, Trump suggested better forest management, even though 70 percent of the forest land is under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also weighed in. He doubts that forest management and raking dead leaves is the culprit behind the historic fires.
“This is not just about forest management or raking,” Garcetti said on the CNN program “State of the Union.” “Anybody who lives here in California is insulted by that, quite frankly, and he keeps perpetuating this lie.”
“What we’re witnessing in California are some of the clearest events where we can say this is climate change,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based think tank. “People who have lived here for many decades are saying that this is unprecedented. It has never been this hot. It has never been this smoky.”
It is likely no coincidence that ozone pollution in Downtown Los Angeles spiked to their highest levels since the mid-1990s on a late-August day when temperatures reached an all-time high for the county. Cesunica Ivey, an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at UC Riverside, has been studying the global rise in temperatures for about two decades. She said the global rise in temperatures is occurring locally.
“These frequently occurring heat waves—this upward trend in basin-wide average temperature—is contributing to ozone exacerbation,” she said.
Climatologists also believe that global warming is fueling increases in wildfire pollution, basically a mix of soot particles and gases that can fuel ozone formation and dramatically worsen smog. These added emissions expected by experts to only worsen as the severity and frequency of wildfires increase.
Simon Wang, a professor of climate dynamics at Utah State University, spoke with NPR last week and said the extreme weather events along the West Coast—and the frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes in the nation’s Gulf Coast and Southeast—will only get worse incoming years.
“What really makes a large-scale fire—no matter how they are triggered—is the fire weather and then also the fuel,” Wang said. “And the fuel means, like, the forest that becomes very easy to burn and very easy to spread. The weather conditions arise from the basic factors, like the temperature, humidity and winds. All three of these conditions, they come together to increase the spread of the fires. With the lengthening of the fire season and the worsening intensification of the fire season, it can only mean that when we have a fire, each one is likely to bigger than the previous one.”