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  • Kristen Balisi

Is Climate Change Fuelling the US Wildfires?

With the unparalleled scale, intensity, speed, location, and timing of the recent US wildfires, the single word experts are using is “unprecedented.”

Currently, the Western US states are experiencing the largest wildfires in history. In California, wildfires have swept the land leaving at least a dozen people killed, 4000 structures destroyed, and more than 12,500 square kilometres (greater than double the area of Prince Edward Island) burned in its wake. Record blazes are additionally being witnessed in nearby coastal states such as Oregon and Washington. Tens of thousands of people are under evacuation orders, and 14,800 firefighters continue to fight 28 major fires in the state. Across the region, flames last week released enough smoke and soot to temporarily block the sun and transform the skies into an eerie orange. All in all, these events have contributed to the worst fire season in California’s state history.

Wildfires across the West have cloaked cities like San Francisco in an unnerving red and orange glow. Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

What role does the climate crisis play in the destructiveness of these record-breaking wildfires?

Contrary to popular belief, wildfires are a beneficial and natural part of various ecosystems in the western states because they rejuvenate the forests and grasslands. Controlled burns can eliminate fire-fueling vegetation, renew the soil, and prevent bigger dangerous wildfires. However, the present-day infernos pose a troubling threat because the underlying heating of the climate from human activities has made them larger and more deadly.

Although the factors causing these blazes are numerous and varied, it is undeniable that “human-caused climate change is a major factor driving these fires,” stated Patrick Gonzalez, a fire ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Several cities and countries across the West experienced near-record or record heat during the summer and into September. As seen, the climate crisis has primed the landscape for disaster by further heating and drying it. With the states of California, Oregon, and Washington undergoing extreme drought conditions, the heat and dryness have made grasses, shrubs, and trees ready to ignite at the merest spark.

Fire crews faced wildfires from near the Mexico border to the Sierra Nevada that burned thousands of acres and spread thick smoke throughout the state.

Furthermore, research over the past 15 years has shown that climate change has drastically increased the prevalence of many conditions that support the ignition and spread of wildfires. Another study showed that without human-caused climate change, the area burned between 1984 and 2015 in California would be half of what it is now. Researchers wrote, “Our climate model analyses suggest that continued climate change will further amplify the number of days with extreme fire weather by the end of this century.”

To lessen the repercussions of climate change and reduce the destruction from wildfires, what can be done?

Since climate change and poor environmental practices aren’t the only causative factors of these raging wildfires, other risks can be reduced to combat them. Nevertheless, climate scientist Simon Donner believes that the solution to this problem begins with first solving our climate crisis.

"We need to do everything we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Donner said. "It's going to keep warming until we stop emitting greenhouse gases. And so this will keep getting worse. Becoming resilient will require catching up with the climate change that we're already living with and getting ahead of the climate change that is to come."

As individuals, it can be hard to imagine what we can do to resolve a problem of such scale and severity. The good news is that we are not alone. All around the world, people, communities, cities, businesses, schools, and other organizations are taking action. If we want to create a change for the better, it is time to join the fight.


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