Wildfires, high winds, and extreme temperatures are ravaging the west coast resulting in one of the biggest wildfire seasons in modern history. Already, millions of acres have been burned, hundreds of buildings, and each day, new towns and cities in all three coastal states are being forced to evacuate. If this year seems worse than usual, you're not imagining things: the fires are worse — much worse — than they have been in past years.
In the past two weeks, record temperatures soared to 120 F in numerous places around the state of California exacerbating an already record-setting fire season. In a press briefing, California Governor Gavin Newsom said that this time last year, 118,000 acres had burned, compared to the already 2.3 million acres this year. In California alone, there are dozens of active fires, over 12,000 firefighters deployed, and months to go in the state’s typical fire season, reports NBC News.
California fires in 2019:— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) September 8, 2020
- 4,927 fires
- 118k acres burned.
California fires in 2020 (so far):
- 7,606 fires
- 2.3 million acres burned.
CLIMATE. CHANGE. IS. REAL.
But the fires aren't relegated to just California: In Oregon, tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate in the last couple days alone. Oregon Governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency citing gusts of high wind as a catalyst for a “once-in-a-generation” wildfire that has already burned upwards of 3,000 acres. The biggest blaze, the Almeda Fire, which forced the entirety of Medford, OR’s 82,000 person population to flee was still at zero percent containment as of Tuesday night, according to Jackson County Emergency Management. On Tuesday morning, high winds caused power outages for 100,000 people in Oregon and Washington.
Governor Jay Inslee of Washington also estimated that 330,000 acres had burned across the state on Monday, more than the total devastation in any of the last 12 fire seasons. Malden, a small town in eastern Washington has reported that at least 80 percent of the whole town has been burned to the ground. “The devastation is all over our state,” said Inslee in a news briefing on Tuesday.
The damage far exceeds that of any previous wildfire season on record. A number of factors contribute to this, but the prevailing explanation as to why it so far exceeds previous years is due to climate change. Last weekend, cities in both southern and northern California recorded high temperatures. In Death Valley, CA, a world record high was recorded when temperatures reached 130 degrees. According to the Washington Post, that is the highest temperature observed worldwide in nearly a century.
“Heatwaves are breaking records everywhere, and as temperatures soar, so does the speed at which the soil and fuels dry,” Leila Carvalho, a professor or meteorology and climate science at the University of California at Santa Barbara told the Washington Post. “What has changed in summer is the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, a climatic response to an anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gases that has been predicted by climate models for decades.”
Other experts say that if we don’t find a way to better manage forestry practices like controlled burns, things will get worse, and multiple, simultaneous fires will continue to be the new normal. Based on historical timelines alone, this fire season is just getting started. (Western state wildfires typically lasts from August through the end of November.)
Now, the focus has shifted to trying to save cities and towns most impacted. For those living in an area at risk of wildfires, experts and organizations are recommending people prepare an evacuation plan, taking extra precautions to gather supplies due to COVID-19, and to stay up-to-date on fires happening in your area. Ready For Wildfire, a California-based organization, has a text alert system to keep people updated on fires in their area. Their website is also full of non-location specific resources for how to prepare for a fire and what to do after.