Record breaking fires rage across California as climate change continues to take its hold

Since the beginning of the year, more than 8,300 wildfires have burned over 4 million acres across California. More than double any previous record of land to ever be burned in a single year in the state. The fire encompasses an area larger than Connecticut, resulting in 31 fatalities and the destruction of an estimated 3,687 structures, causing many to lose their homes and livelihoods. This follows 17 of the 20 deadliest wildfires in Californian history since 2003. 

The statistics are frightening, with the largest fire on record nearly five times the size of New York City occurring in Mendocino National Forest, just north of San Francisco. The extreme production of smoke left an orange hue across the sky of the West Coast leaving residents feeling helpless and frightened by the severity of the situation and fast approaching flames. Current fires have been made worse by powerful winds alongside hot and dry weather. 

Human encroachment into nature has also influenced the rate of wildfires, with a 100-fold increase in housing developments in dangerous fire zones across the western US between 1940 and 2010. It has also been suggested that the El Dorado fire could have been started by a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device from a gender reveal party. Forest management decisions also contribute as build-up of vegetation can rapidly become fuel. 

Whilst human encroachment into nature and land management play a part, the fundamental cause is ultimately the continuous rise of global temperatures and the impeding force of climate change. Lower precipitation, intensified wind and warmer air temperatures heightened by the impact of climate change dry the forest and surrounding vegetation, resulting in a lethal concoction ideal for extreme wildfires to arise. 

A published review assessed the effect of climate change on wildfires around the globe. The study focused on 57 research papers published after 2013 when an extensive review on climate science was published. In every study, the relationships between climate change and not only frequency but severity of fire weather was found. Dr Matthew Jones from the University of East Anglia who led the review believes the eight to ten-fold increase in wildfires in the past four decades can be pinpointed to climate change. 

America is not the only country struggling with the increasing threat of wildfires. In 2019 Australia had the warmest and driest year on record which ultimately contributed to an estimated 10 million hectares of land being burnt between 2019-2020. Records also reflect this with the country now being 1.4 °C warmer than the world average temperature was during the pre-industrial period. 

It has been estimated that from 1979 to 2019, fire weather conditions have risen to a total of eight days on average around the globe. In the case of Western America, climate-associated shifts such as increasing heat, changing rain and snow patterns, as well as changes in plant communities has dramatically increased the chance for more frequent and intense wildfires. Therefore, it can be concluded that the current crisis in California is a glimpse into a future dictated by the actions of climate change and our current generations’  willingness to ignore the ever-present issue. 

Climate change has also been brought into the political debate during the build up to the 2020 US election. In response to the wildfires and apparent climate change Trump simply stated, “It will get cooler”, leading to angry criticism from Biden who calls Trump a “climate arsonist” for blatantly ignoring climate science. Evidently, climate change is driving the increasing threat of wildfires, or more simply put there’s no smoke without fire. 

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Emily Hawkes

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