- Environment & Energy
Wildfires in the Time of Climate Change
This year we have seen some of the most extreme and disastrous weather events in recent memory. Wildfires ravaged large stretches of land near my hometown in northern California and burned thousands of structures in Santa Barbara last year. In 2018 things have gotten worse.
The Carr fire in Northern California’s Shasta and Trinity Counties devoured more than 220,000 acres this summer. The fire was so extreme that it created its own weather systems, including terrifying fire tornadoes. California is still in the middle of its dry season, and the volume of lost land and buildings is already 14 percent higher than the average for the past ten years.
Climate change is also impacting other countries. Japan has seen massive rainfalls followed by an unprecedented heat wave this summer, which claimed 350 lives. Countries across Europe are experiencing record heat.
While the effects of climate change can be hard to feel, depending on where one lives, extreme weather events like these can bring the issue home in the blink of an eye. I would know.
Last fall, I woke up to text messages from friends, asking if my house was still standing. The Tubbs fire, the most destructive wildfire in California history which resulted in the death of at least 22 people, came within 10 miles of my childhood home, outside Santa Rosa. While my town, thankfully, was spared, many in my community were not so lucky. A close childhood friend lost her home. Her parents barely escaped with their lives when the winds changed and the fire came quickly toward them.
By the time the fire was finally contained, roughly 20 percent of the families at my high school had lost their homes. The fire was devastating for my community. Many are still struggling to rebuild and are living with grief and trauma.
Though the Carr fire was started by a malfunctioning vehicle, climate scientists agree: the conditions that create such extreme weather events are a direct result of a warming climate.
As Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann explained in a recent interview aired by PBS, “What we can conclude with a great deal of confidence now is that climate change is making these events much more extreme. And it’s not rocket science…You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worse drought. You bring that all together, and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”
These problems will only get worse unless we take decisive steps to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
The current administration’s position is that forest fires are simply a forest management issue. They blame environmentalists who oppose logging. Congress, however, has taken a more proactive response. In March, they passed an omnibus spending bill that allowed federal agencies to access a separate emergency response fund for particularly expensive wildfires, and ended the practice of “fire borrowing,” which will allow federal agencies to direct funds towards fire mitigation strategies on public lands. This was a positive step, but much more must be done to ensure federal agencies have dedicated funding to prevent and deal with the impacts of wildfires. In the end we, individually and as a society, must fight for as much progress as we can to protect our planet. As Mann says, “It’s up to us.”