Orange County, California and the areas around Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado have become epicentres for a U.S. wildfire season so relentless and severe that climate scientists say they never expected anything this bad for another 30 years.
And there’s some evidence that voters will be taking concerns for their personal safety to the polls in this week’s national election, in a year when wildfires have already burned more than five million acres/two million hectares across six American states, including more than 4.1 million acres in California. The year also produced the state’s first-ever “gigafire”, a single wildfire that exceeds one million acres.
Last week in Irvine, CA and other parts of Orange County, strong Santa Ana winds pushed the Silverado and Blue Ridge wildfires to more than double in size in a single night, forcing more than 90,000 people to evacuate, the New York Times reports. Two of the 500 firefighters battling the Silverado blaze, aged 26 and 31, suffered second- and third-degree burns across 65 and 50% of their bodies, NBC says. They’ve both been intubated.
“They are gravely injured,” said Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy. “Their families are with them,” and “we are giving them all the support we can.”
Citing news reports from USA Today and CBS, EcoWatch notes that the Silverado fire started out covering a mere 10 acres, and firefighters hoped they could limit it to brush in a less populated part of Irvine. “But the flames were fanned by strong winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour, with gusts up to 70 miles per hour. In three hours, it grew to 2,000 acres,” then 7,200 acres last Monday night. By mid-week, the fire had burned more than 13,000 acres/5,260 hectares and was about 25% contained, the LAist blog says. The Blue Ridge fire has taken more than 15,000 acres.
“The wind is crazy, my family has been through it in Malibu,” said evacuee Ruby Johnson. “It’s a crazy thing, never had to experience it ourselves. You can replace clothes and things, but you can’t replace your lives. I’ve got all the pictures and valuables, so we’re ready to go.”
Although investigators aren’t jumping to conclusions, there’s some possibility that power utility infrastructure, this time belonging to Southern California Edison, may have touched off the Silverado fire. “The fire raised more concerns about whether utilities have substantially improved their safety efforts, and whether the company should have more broadly shut off power in Southern California this week,” the Times says. The utility said conditions on the ground fell short of what would trigger a shutdown. “Edison’s posture stood in contrast to Pacific Gas and Electric, which turned off power to a broad swath of Northern California beginning on Sunday over fears of dangerous wildfire conditions.”
But “investigators have not determined what ignited the fires,” the paper adds, and a SoCalEd incident report filed last week said the flames may have begun when a separate telecommunications line struck its equipment. “Telecommunications companies hang their wires on utility poles and are responsible for their own equipment,” the Times says. And “even critics of the utilities cautioned against drawing conclusions about the incident reports.”
“We don’t want to make any wide-eyed accusations without having the evidence,” said Utility Reform Network Executive Director Mark Toney.
With so many people in Orange County under evacuation orders, officials were scrambling last week to assess whether the wildfires would have an impact on voting. “Numerous places around Irvine and other parts of the county, such as parks and schools and community centres, had been set up as evacuation centres,” the Times explains. At least four of those locations “are also slated to be voting centres, raising the possibility that they may not be able to open for voters later in the week if the fires do not subside.”
The sheer scope and severity of the fires didn’t stop Donald Trump from initially withholding federal aid from the state he loves to hate, before changing course and authorizing relief for six of the fires. “Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a brief statement in mid-October. “Grateful for his quick response.”
Previously, state officials have had to school the former reality TV star and failed real estate magnate in the actual, science-based reality that California wildfires won’t just go away [kind of like the coronavirus—Ed.] as the weather magically cools, and won’t be solved by raking the forests more vigorously.
In Colorado, meanwhile, the then-two-month-old Cameron Peak fire took its place in mid-October as the state’s biggest wildfire ever, after withstanding more than 12 inches/30 centimetres of early September snow, the Denver Post reported. Driven by winds gusting up to 76 miles/122 kilometres per hour, the fire grew to 158,300 acres, “sending towers of smoke billowing over Fort Collins and much of the northern Front Range throughout the day,” the paper said. At that point, firefighting agencies said the blaze was 56% contained.
A graph accompanying the Post story actually put the Cameron Peak fire at 208,663 acres, ahead of the East Troublesome and Pine Gulch fires at 192,560 and 139,007 acres, respectively. All three of Colorado’s worst-ever blazes hit the state this year, with the season as a whole pulling 3,000 firefighters into the field to get the situation under control.
“It’s a snapshot from hell: A group of firefighters brace themselves against a furious wind blowing dust and debris and fanning flames in a reddish-orange Martian landscape that is all too real for crews battling several dangerous wildfires in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming,” The Associated Press wrote.
Last week, the news agency said the Cameron Peak fire had destroyed 426 buildings and damaged another eight, including 209 homes. To the southwest, the East Troublesome fire had grown to 301 square miles/780 square kilometres, was 20% contained, and had taken the lives of an elderly couple who’d “calmly and adamantly” told their son they planned to wait it out in their basement.
Even for scientists whose climate research prepared them for an era of higher temperatures, drier conditions, and the increased wildfire activity that was bound to result, the fury of the 2020 fire season has come as a shock. University of New Mexico forest ecologist Matthew Hurteau, who studies fire in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, said researchers didn’t expect a year like this until sometime between 2040 and 2060.
“I’ve had tightness in my chest for 8 weeks,” he tweeted in late September. “Not because I’ve had family evacuated or fire threatening my res. site, but because our simulations are wrong. We projected big fires for sure, but later this century. Climate impacts are happening faster than we thought they would.”
Grist attributes the gap between the projections and the emerging reality to climate researchers’ baked-in tendency to be cautious with their findings and, if anything, underestimate the risks to humanity—notwithstanding claims from a fossil-funded climate denial industry that the scientists are being alarmist. While wildfires (and other aspects of some climate disasters) are hard to predict, “what comes out of the peer review process is reined in from what some of us think is going to happen,” Hurteau said. “Everybody I know who works on climate-related stuff has had conversations about how we think it’s worse than our research shows.”
But as far as the acres burned in California so far this year, “the four million mark is unfathomable. It boggles the mind, and it takes your breath away,” Cal Fire spokesperson Scott McLean told the Associated Press. “And that number will grow.”
That same concern is emerging in Colorado. “The record-breaking forest fires burning in Colorado even as winter sets in are the latest sign climate warming is hitting the West hard, causing scientists to up their rhetoric and warn it is past time to move beyond planning and start aggressively acting,” the Denver Post writes. The state in particular, and the western U.S. in general, “face more hot days and temperatures will shoot higher, scientists say. The rising heat is depleting water and drying soil across the Colorado River Basin and other river basins. Last week, federal authorities classified 97% of Colorado in severe to exceptional drought.”
“We’ve got to get motivated and stop turning the thermostat up,” said Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Scott Denning. “That is urgent, not a sci-fi thing. It is us turning up the thermostat. It does not readily turn down. The farther we turn it up, the worse it will get.”
And recently, it looks like that message may be landing, with a growing segment of Colorado voters expressing serious concern about climate impacts. “Since the 1990s, polls have shown about four out of five voters believe climate change is happening,” Colorado Public Radio reports. “What’s new is how animating it’s become for a growing segment.”
With the number of voters who describe global warming as “extremely personally important” nearly doubling to about 25% since 2015, “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication, political science and psychology at Stanford University. CPR says a state-level survey brought back similar results—numbers that position the climate emergency as a vote-determining issue on a par with gun control or reproductive choice.
“If you come to be passionate about climate change, what that means is you’re making this very big commitment to gather information about the issue, to read every newspaper story,” he told the public radio outlet. “It’s a sort of a constant hobby of yours to be engaged on this issue.”
Colorado Public Radio has more on what’s driving people in the state to express concern. The Guardian produced a report a month ago on how America’s year of wildfires and storms has brought home the reality of climate change. And Ed Struzik of Queen’s University’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy wrote a mid-September exposé for Yale Environment 360 on the age of megafires as a climate tipping point.