Unprecedented Wildfires Ravage California

A staggering four million acres of California have been scorched by wildfires, effectively breaking the state record for the most land burned in a single year. The previous record, set in 2018, has more than doubled during the 2020 fire season. Already, 8,200 wildfires have damaged more than 8,400 homes and buildings and killed 31 people. The damage has been ongoing since August, when five of the six largest fires in state history started. However, fire season is nowhere near over. Over 17,000 firefighters have worked to contain fires in California, some of which are still burning. Studies indicate that the increasingly large wildfires are a result of climate change. It is necessary to note that the California wildfires reflect a broader, global pattern. Throughout 2020, fires also ravaged Australia and Brazil, destroying vegetation and wildlife.

The August Complex, which was sparked by lightning on August 17th, continues to burn around the Mendocino National Forest, between San Francisco and Oregon. The August Complex alone has scorched over one million acres, the state’s first “gigafire.” According to Governor Gavin Newsom, the August Complex fire is larger than all previously recorded in California between 1932 and 1999 combined. Subsequently, in a recent press conference about the August Complex fire, Newsom claimed, “If [the fire is] not proof-point testament to climate change, I don’t know what is.” Increasing temperatures in Oregon and California represent further proof of climate change. Since 1900, both states have warmed by more than one degree Celsius. Similarly, Australia has warmed by at least one degree since 1910, most of which has occurred since the 1950s. A recently released report compiled by the World Meteorological Organization and backed by the United Nations, claims that despite the Paris Agreement “2016-2020 is set up to be the warmest five year period on record.” As a result, “fire potential remains high,” as tweeted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.

World leaders have been routinely criticized for poor responses to wildfires. American President Donald Trump initially offered virtually no response to the California fires burning since August. For several weeks of the crisis, Trump remained silent, only flying to California following the deaths of 27 people. However, the president maintained his stance on climate change: denial. Instead, Trump attributed the wildfires to poor forest management, effectively imposing the blame for the crisis on the state. Ironically, 57 percent of land in California is not under state management, but has actually been designated federal forest land. The president has promoted the burning of fossil fuels and weakened existing environmental protections. Early in Trump’s term in office, the United States was pulled out of the Paris Agreement, an international commitment to preventing the further rise of global temperatures. Former Vice President Joe Biden has called Trump a “climate arsonist.”

However, President Trump’s rhetoric is influential. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics,” campaigned on promises to restore the national economy through the exploitation of the economic potential of the Amazon rainforest. At least 29,307 fires burned in August of 2020. Following his election, the budget of the Environmental Enforcement Agency was cut by 23 million dollars. Unlike the dry climates of California and Australia, the Amazon remains humid even during the Brazilian dry season and as a result, the fires are unlikely to start naturally. Instead, the fires were set by cattle ranchers and loggers in order to clear the land.

Climate change has created ideal conditions for the rapid spread of wildfires throughout California. The length of fire season is typically determined by temperature. Inevitably, the warmer it is, the longer fire season will last. A heat wave, which has persisted in California since August, and lightning strikes ultimately coincided with dry conditions to facilitate the rapid spread of wildfires.  The state suffered from a drought between 2010 and 2017, effectively drying out vegetation. Furthermore, a bark beetle epidemic killed approximately 150 million trees, creating a tinderbox on the forest floor.

Similar conditions in Australia, including record high temperatures and months of droughts, resulted in a horrendous bushfire season which saw 11 million hectares burned. The weather effectively dries vegetation, which fuels the wildfires. The drier the fuel, the easier it is for fires to start and spread. According to a study published in March which aimed to assess the role of climate change in the 2020 Australian Bushfires, should global temperatures rise by two degrees Celsius, the hot and dry conditions which so effectively spread bushfires would occur four times more often. Although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison does not actively deny climate change, government inaction during the bushfires was heavily criticized.

Throughout 2020, wildfires have ravaged the globe, a direct result of the conditions facilitated by climate change. However, the wildfires actively contribute to global warming. The four million acres of forest burned in California released approximately 200 million metric tons of stored, heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Large trees are naturally capable of absorbing and storing carbon for hundreds of years. The Amazon is known as a “carbon sink,” as it stores an estimated 200 billion tons of carbon, and produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. Damage to the rainforest has far-reaching global implications. The Amazon functions as an air-conditioner for the planet, impacting global temperature and rainfall. Already 17 percent of the original area of the rainforest has been lost.

Despite the international attention the wildfires initially received, and the brief decline in emissions during pandemic lockdown, greenhouse gas in the atmosphere continues to increase, effectively warming the earth. The impacts of the wildfires, and climate change more broadly, are irreversible.


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