With “multiple mega-fires burning more than three million acres”, and millions of people in California, Oregon, and Washington State facing a mix of toxic air, extreme heat, and rolling blackouts, a month of summer wildfires is bringing some of the most dire predictions from climate scientists into day-to-day reality.
“The crisis in the nation’s most populous state is more than just an accumulation of individual catastrophes,” the New York Times reports. “It is also an example of something climate experts have long worried about, but which few expected to see so soon: a cascade effect, in which a series of disasters overlap, triggering or amplifying each other.”
“You’re toppling dominoes in ways that Americans haven’t imagined,” said Roy Wright, who the Times says directed resilience programs for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency until 2018 and grew up near one of this year’s largest fires in Vacaville, CA. “It’s apocalyptic.”
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The coverage on the Cable News Network (CNN) tells a similar story, noting that California had seen 7,606 fires so far this year as of September 9. At that time last year, the state had recorded 4,927 blazes. The size of California wildfires has increased eight-fold since the 1970s, said CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford, while the annual area burned is up nearly 500%. Scientists say the number of fire tornadoes is also on the rise.
“The challenge we’re facing now is the extreme fire events that we believe are climate-induced,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. And “the effects have been painfully felt,” CNN adds. “At least seven people have died since the start of this year’s fire season, according to Cal Fire, with thousands of homes reduced to embers. Many communities have had to order mandatory evacuations, and more than 170,000 recently went without power to prevent future blazes.”
“California, folks, is America fast forward,” Newsom said. “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to [communities] all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.” The Washington Post reported seven dead across the three states, including a one-year-old, as of Thursday, the Associated Press put the death toll at 15 on Friday, and by Monday morning the number had reached 35. Wildfire Today recounted crews deploying emergency fire shelters after their positions were overrun by fast-moving flames, and carried photos of pyrocumulus clouds over the Claremont-Bear Fire complex in California.
UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told CNN the impacts across the western U.S. are “not scientifically surprising”, adding that human activity has driven higher temperatures, which in turn dries out the vegetation that becomes tinder for seasonal wildfires. “Climate change has not just made the extreme heat waves that coincided with the fires worse. The bigger effect is the more subtle, long-term warming,” he explained. “That couple of degrees of (average) warming over decades…you don’t notice it as much, but it’s still there lurking in the background, sucking extra moisture out of the vegetation and the soil.”
Environment Canada warned of very high health risk in Metro Vancouver due to wildfire smoke. “The agency advised people with underlying medical conditions or serious infections such as COVID-19 to postpone or reduce activities outside,” The Canadian Press reports. “It said people with heart and lung conditions are most affected by air pollution and the very high risk is expected to continue through at least Sunday in Metro Vancouver and elsewhere in British Columbia,” with local smoke concentrations varying widely based on changing winds, temperatures, and wildfire behaviour. Some people in southern B.C. were asking whether their health symptoms were brought on by wildfire smoke or COVID-19, and air quality alerts were issued for parts of Alberta.
Nearly 100 birders in California and parts of Nevada said they’d “observed a pronounced drop in the number of birds flying in for a nibble at feeders or sips of water at bird baths, as well as a reduction in the variety of species,” InsideClimate News writes.
And Reuters looks at how the west coast fires could trigger a financial crisis in the United States, citing a recent report by the federal Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The story envisions more frequent, intense wildfires driving down home values for perhaps one-quarter of California’s 12 million households, insurance companies withdrawing coverage, local governments moving closer to default as they lose tax revenue, and the combined effect growing into a “systemic crisis in slow motion”.
Or a major financial hit could emerge more suddenly, if the dawning realization of climate catastrophe shifts investors’ risk assessments, Reuters says. “A sudden revision of market participants’ perceptions about climate risk could trigger a disorderly repricing of assets, which could have cascading effects on portfolios and balance sheets and, therefore, systemic implications for financial stability,” the CFTC report stated.
In the last week, the impacts spread beyond California, with Oregon reporting five dead, dozens missing, 40,000 evacuated, and about 500,000 people, more than one-tenth of the state population, under evacuation alert, the Washington Post reports. Governor Kate Brown called the fires a “once-in-a-generation event”, while Andrew Phelps, director of the state Office of Emergency Management, said Oregon is preparing for “a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost”. That language, he added, defines an incident that wreaks death and suffering “that cannot be met through usual individual and community resources.”
“The Oregon Convention Center in Portland was among the buildings being transformed into shelters for evacuees,” The Associated Press writes. “Portland, shrouded in smoke, on Friday had the worst air quality of the world’s major cities, according to IQAir.”
At that point in the crisis, “a change in the weather, with winds dropping and shifting direction and rising humidity, greatly helped firefighters struggling to prevent two fires—one burning southeast of Portland and the other east of Salem, the state capital—from advancing farther west into more-populated areas.”
But by Sunday, massive clouds of wildfire smoke were producing serious health risks for millions of people and complicating firefighting efforts, the Washington Post states, with air quality listed as “hazardous” or “very unhealthy” across the state.
In neighbouring Washington state, the Post says, nearly 627,000 acres had burned between Monday and Friday, producing the state’s “second-worst fire season” on record, according to Governor Jay Inslee. “And these are just the active fires, not the ones that have already been contained and where recovery continues,” he told media.
As if the reality on the ground were not tortuous enough, the Times reports local law enforcement officials have been exasperated by utterly false social media reports that various fringe groups, from the hard right wing Proud Boys to anti-fascist activists, had set the fires. “We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically influenced arson campaign,” said Oregon Department of Forestry spokesperson Joy Krawczyk. Even in the case of Oregon’s Alameda fire, which may have been deliberately set, “one thing I can say is that the rumour it was set by Antifa is 100% false information,” said Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara.
One of the leading sources of that rampant paranoia, the Donald Trump Twitter feed, has been almost completely silent on the fires, the Washington Post notes. “The president’s relative silence on the West’s wildfire crisis matches up with his relative silence on three other issues: the struggles of Democratic-led states, climate change, and crises that require empathy,” writes political analyst Amber Phillips.
By contrast, President Barack Obama has been tweeting photos of the wildfires to remind his online audience that “protecting our planet is on the ballot,” The Independent writes.
“The fires across the West Coast are just the latest examples of the very real ways our changing climate is changing our communities,” Obama wrote. “Vote like your life depends on it—because it does.”