Shrouded in Haze: The U.S. West Coast Wildfire Rampage

Nathan Yang looks at the ongoing extreme wildfire season in multiple states on the West Coast United States. These record setting fires come as a result of intense weather events throughout the region, heatwaves, and other external causes which all stem from the human impact on global climate change.

Original artwork courtesy of Yana Marchuk

Over the past weeks, the view from much of the western U.S has been covered by a dense cloud of smoke. States including Arizona, Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado have been inundated with wildfires leaving residents living closest to the thirty nine largest fires in the latter four states under evacuation orders up to today. This year, in California alone, over 7,700 fires have burned across around 3.5 million acres of land as of September 14th; this makes the 2020 California wildfire season the largest in recorded history two months before the typical fire season is over. Fires have also burned down and devastated towns such as Malden, Washington, where nearly 80% of buildings there were destroyed. With four of the top ten largest fires in California history burning this year and firefighting resources becoming increasingly limited, the reality of the “climate emergency” is certainly showing true.

Typically, states like California expect a fire season each year between the months of August to October due to dry, windy, and hot weather conditions. Additionally, during the autumn months, there is an increased accumulation of dried vegetation throughout the region creating more fuel for fires to ignite or continue burning. However, 2020 saw various anomalies in weather patterns which created the spark for multiple fires with the help of damaged human infrastructure and individual intent.

The Bobcat Fire currently burning in the Angeles National Forest 15 miles from Downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 11, 2020 (Getty Images/David Mcnew)

In Mid-August, fires such as the LNU Lightning Complex, CZU Lightning Complex, North Complex, and August Complex started as a result of Tropical Storm Fausto passing over Northern California bringing large thunder and lightning events. According to the US’s National Weather Service, this large, dry storm produced around 11,000 bolts of lightning, igniting some of California’s national parks and forests. Additionally, the storm’s timing coincided with record heat waves throughout the state. Meteorologists consider the coincidence of these events produced a “once-in-a-decade” thunderstorm.

Later towards the end of August, a large low-pressure system pushing down from the north in the Rocky Mountain region brought freezing temperatures to states as far south as Colorado and Utah. This system brought an extreme temperature switch in the area as areas in Colorado which were in the high thirty degree Celsius the week prior went into below zero-degree Celsius which lead to a very early snowfall onto some of Colorado’s fires.

However, at the same time, the low-pressure area in the Rocky Mountain region pushed a hot, high pressure system into the California/Arizona regions, bringing heat forty two degrees Celsius and higher up and down the coast. This system not only worsened existing wildfires, it added greater difficulty for fire crews with their limited resources to contain fire growth.

Shockingly, the El Dorado fire in San Bernardino County in Southern California was not the result of any typical human or natural cause . It was instead started by a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party in a location with tall dry grass. Today, that fire has expanded to over 18,000 acres with 60% containment. The carelessness and lack of awareness by the individuals at that party certainly portrays an accurate representation of the human impact on climate change. It takes only a single individual or small group to make a significant impact on the global climate.

Bidwell Bar Bridge surrounded by fire in Lake Oroville during the Bear fire in Oroville, California on Sept. 9, 2020 (Getty Images/Josh Edelson)

As these fires continue to burn down large expanses of forested and residential land throughout the west coast, they also produce major exhaust gasses in the form of smoke. When looking at live satellite maps of North America, the sight of large plumes of smoke stemming from these wildfires blanket cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco; smoke has even reached as far north as Vancouver, Canada and east to New York City and Washington D.C.. Winds coming west from the Pacific Ocean paired with easterly winds coming over the Sierra Nevada mountain range funnel these winds around these cities, making for some of the worlds worst air quality.

PM2.5 (particulate matter) in the city of San Francisco reached 134.3μg/m3 and AQI (Air Quality Index) reached 161 US AQI on September 10th. When considering that the city averaged an annual PM2.5 level of 7.1 μg/m3 in 2019, it is clear that the smoke from all of these fires is significantly damaging to the environment and public health. Moreover, wildfires also release large amounts of carbon emissions, carbon dioxide, and ash chemicals that affect the atmosphere and create larger irregularities in weather and climate events locally and globally. When considering the amount of awareness created and action taken by activist groups, politicians, scientists, and business leaders regarding the need to reduce consumption and production of emissions over the past years, these wildfires show that efforts are still inadequate and are worsened by these wildfires.

Golden Gate Bridge Before (Nov. 12, 2016) and After (Sept. 9, 2020) wildfire smoke blanketed the region. Both photos taken around midday.
(Left) Photo courtesy of Nathan Yang
(Right) Photo: Getty Images/Harold Postic

Currently, with over seventy major fires in the west coast of the United States, efforts of containing each fire has been mixed. The Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, declared a State of Emergency due to these fires and extreme weather conditions to call for federal support to battle the fires. It is estimated that around 12,000 firefighters are battling the fires in California alone. Also, thousands of people are under evacuation orders up and down the west coast, which during the current pandemic recommending people stay home and with smoke preventing people from going outside, has made life much more difficult for these people trying to protect themselves and their families.

Today, while fires like the LNU Lightning Complex and CZU Lightning Complex are reaching full containment, other fires across the west coast have yet to have such containment success. Rough terrain, challenging weather and a lack of resources have limited many efforts, making the loss of towns, historic lands and landmarks, and human lives more common. Additionally, while the Western United States faced some of the hottest and driest weather, the Eastern United States is facing destruction and flooding from Hurricane Sally. Individuals and families across the country already facing unbelievable hardship through job loss and pandemic limitations this year are only being placed under even more stress as resources and government support become stretched thin.

Malden, Washington where 80% of buildings were burned down on Sept. 9, 2020 (The Spokesman-Review/Jesse Tinsley)

Moreover, as these wildfires blaze, they kill existing insects and wildlife, while creating newly fertilized soil for forest growth cycles to restart. But there is a point where too many wildfires can potentially permanently alter ecosystems. And even though there are other factors involved in starting wildfires, such as fire suppression and local fire management practices, the area burned by wildfires is likely driven by a change in climate factors.

When looking back and comparing to the Australian wildfire season at the beginning of this year, these fires along the US West Coast do not necessarily come as a surprise. Wildfires have become more intense year on year with new records for high temperatures, wildfire events, and weather events being set each year. With average global temperatures rising each year and freak weather events becoming more common, it is unsurprising to see the results of relatively relaxed global emissions and waste regulation taking their effect on the Earth’s climate.

As a society, there needs to be a change in expectation and an increase in awareness as to what is produced and how much harmful waste is created. According to the national park service, nearly 80% of fires are human-caused as a result of unattended campfires , the burning of debris, equipment malfunctions, cigarettes, and acts of arson. Combined with a hotter climate globally, these acts can have much greater negative impacts and result in the wildfires seen in the Western US. Also, as the El Dorado fire in California shows, it only takes the actions of a single individual to create a devastating wildfire that not only can affect local communities and residents in the vicinity, but a fire that can devastate towns and cities that ultimately add to the ever-present problem of global climate change.

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