An unprecedented fire season is wreaking havoc across the Western US, with nearly 100 major wildfires tearing across multiple states and air quality plummeting. At least 24 people have died, with dozens more missing and over 3,000 homes, and entire neighborhoods, destroyed since the season began. By Friday in Oregon, which has declared a state of emergency, half a million people were under evacuation orders as two fires threatened to merge and continue rapidly advancing toward Salem and Portland’s suburbs. Oregon fires have burned more than 1 million acres, said the state’s governor, Kate Brown. She called the blazes a “once-in-a-generation event.”
California’s wildfires, driven by extreme blazes in August and September, have already burned more acres than any year on record. As of Thursday, there are blazes burning in at least 10 western states, according to the interagency incident information system.
The images and stories coming out of the US west are eerily reminiscent of those experienced by Australians in early 2020.
In January, vast swaths of Australia burned. The skies turned orange, and smoke blanketed the country’s largest cities. Entire cities were flattened. Now, across the Pacific, this grim history is repeating. San Francisco skies turned an eerie orange last week, with smoke blotting out the sun.
There are glimmers of hope, as a freak blizzard slowed fire growth in Colorado. But in a sign of things to come, the fire season is yet to peak, and more of Washington state burned in a 24-hour period last week week than in 12 of the last 18 fire seasons.
Here’s what we know about the ongoing fires and how you can help from the US or afar.
Why is the West Coast on fire?
Fires can start in a variety of ways. Human activity, like carelessly discarding a cigarette, poorly maintained infrastructure or even gender reveal parties with pyrotechnics can spark fires. Some of the wildfires currently blazing across California are the result of accidental ignition.
Fires can also be deliberately lit, though arson has not been linked to the current conflagrations. Rumors have circulated through social media that some of the fires may have been intentionally set by either right-wing or leftist activists, leading some officials to mount social media campaigns of their ownto dispel the myths.
Nature also conspires to begin fires, with lightning strikes a major concern. In California, intense thunderstorms kicked off a number of large blazes in August. Prolonged periods of drought and mismanagement of national forests may also play a role in helping these fires start. With the fire season getting longer, the window to perform critical hazard reduction burns has decreased, giving fires a chance to really take hold. The risk of the wildfires burning across western US was well-known to scientists and, regardless of the origins, fires are fueled by a dizzying number of factors.
A lack of rain and low soil moisture can help enable small fires to grow in size, and coupled with the high temperatures and fierce winds, small fires can quickly become huge infernos. This all feels extremely similar to anyone familiar with the bushfire crisis confronted by Australia in January. Environmental factors contributed significantly to the unprecedented fire season down under and they are playing out again in the US — partially driven by the negative effects of climate change.
What is the connection to climate change?
Wildfires aren’t started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The Climate Council, an independent, community funded climate organization, suggests fire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils, and record-breaking heat in Australia. The link between fires and climate change has become a political football, but experts agree climate change explains the unprecedented nature of the current crisis.
Wildfires are getting worse in the US. According to data from the Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity program, on average, there are more wildfires, and they are burning more land each year. A study published in July 2019 concluded that “human-caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California … and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades.”
There’s no question that 2020 will be one of the hottest years on record for the planet, and a 75% chance it will be the hottest ever, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Increased temperatures allow fires to burn more intensely and also cause forests to dry out and burn more easily. The heating is unequivocally caused by climate change.
“The debate is over around climate change,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters on Friday, standing in a charred landscape. “Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes. It’s not an intellectual debate. It’s not even debatable.”
There is also a horrifying feedback loop that occurs when great swaths of land are ablaze, a fact the globe grappled with during the Amazon fires of 2019 and the Australian bushfires of 2020. Huge fires release large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The gas, which makes up only a small percentage of the total gases in the atmosphere, is exceptionally good at trapping heat.
Andrew Sullivan, a fire research team leader for CSIRO, an Australian government research agency, examined how technology may help predict and fight against fires. In September, he told CNET that “changes to the climate are exposing more areas to the likelihood of fire.”
What areas are affected?
Fires are burning across the western US, but the greatest conflagrations are across California and Oregon.
More than 3.5 million acres have burned in California, with over 2,500 more fires than at the same point in 2019. One of the largest fires during the Australian season, the Gospers mountain megafire, burned through around 2.2 million acres. “Unprecedented” is the word again being used by officials, weather services and media to describe the size and severity of the blazes. The dust and ash from the fires have turned the skies orange across California.
Blazes in Oregon have been increasingly destructive, driven by heavy winds. “I want to be upfront in saying that we expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and human lives,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said during a briefing Tuesday. “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.”
Washington has also experienced significant fires, with almost 350,000 acres burned in a 24-hour period in early September. Two large fires broke out on Sept. 8, and Gov. Jay Inslee said “more acres burned … than in 12 of the last 18 entire fire seasons in the state of Washington.”
The New York Times has an informative fire map that can help you track where conflagrations are burning.
Who’s fighting the fires?
In California, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, heads up the wildland firefighting effort, but actually beating back the flames on the ground is a massive collaboration that also involves local, county and federal resources. Teams of National Forest Service and other agencies’ “hotshot” teams travel from as far as New Mexico to fight fires on the ground.
California also employs a controversial “conservation camp” program in which prison inmates are trained to fight fires. Prisoners can earn time off their sentences and work towards continue in a career en emergency services upon their release. But the program has been criticized for the dangerous work that comes with meager pay.
Many conservation camps have been sidelined in the wildfire fight during this record-breaking season due to outbreaks of the coronavirus. But as of Thursday, inmate crews were out on the line fighting the out-of-control Creek Fire near Fresno.
Do I need to wear a mask?
The smoke and ash from wildfires can irritate the respiratory tract and make it harder to breathe. During Australia’s bushfire season, there was a stark increase in the amount of calls to ambulance services and researchers have demonstrated there may be a significant health burden on those exposed to smoke. Respiratory distress sees more people entering hospitals in the US during a typical wildfire season.
Fine particles in the air can cause damage to the lungs and increase inflammation in the short-term. What is less certain is the long-term effects of exposure to smoke.
We have become intimately familiar with the use of masks over the last six months, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but you may be wondering whether you need to use one to protect against smoke from wildfires. The short answer is: You probably should, but filtering smoke and ash out of the air requires an N95 or P100 mask — and public health officials suggest these should be reserved for health care workers. They also cannot completely filter out some of the gases present in wildfire smoke.
Cloth masks and other coverings we have become familiar with during the pandemic will not be effective at protecting against smoke. The US Environmental Protection Agency says remaining indoors and limiting your time outdoors is “the most effective way” to protect yourself during wildfire emergencies.
You can find current air quality data from AirNow for your ZIP code, city or state.
How you can help
- America’s Red Cross Disaster relief and recovery fund helps support evacuation centers and recovery programs for affected communities.
- GlobalGiving has opened a Wildfire Relief fund that will provide relief and support for those affected by the fires. You can donate at their website.
- Direct Relief has been helping with the effort to get particulate-filtering masks across Californian communities, much like it did in the Australian bushfire season. You can donate to their efforts, which support disaster relief across the world, here.
- The California Community Foundation is taking donations to support immediate disaster relief and long-term recovery efforts. You can find the donation link here.
- An all-cause GoFundMe has been created to distribute funds to various, verified GoFundMe campaigns.
- The Salvation Army has a donation page for the fires to assist on the ground by providing food, water and support.
- The California Fire Foundation provides emotional and financial assistance to families of fallen firefighters, firefighter and the communities they protect. You can donate here.
- The Los Angeles County Fire Department Foundation has a donations page for “supporting our paramedics, firefighters, lifeguards and other personnel along with important community programs.”
- The (City of) Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation “is actively raising funds for wildland brush clearance tool kits and other important safety gear for the men and women of the LAFD.”
- United Way Bay Area has established a wildfire relief fund to provide immediate and long-term recovery assistance.
- VEMAnet, the Volunteers for the Emergency Management of Animals Network, provides assistance to animal owners in times of urgency. You can request or provide help by heading to its website.
- There are a number of great mental health resources for those in distress. Mental Health America has collated an extensive list of phone numbers and aid. Americans can call Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255 and the Disaster Distress Helpline on 1-800-985-5990.
Other things you can do
- Raise awareness! You can tweet and share and post this story — and dozens of others — all across the web. More eyeballs means more help to those who need it.
- Run your online searches through Ecosia, which uses profits to plant trees where they’re needed most. Trees help reduce the carbon dioxide load. It can be added to Chrome.
- In the US, if you want to contact elected officials and make your voice heard about climate change action — you can do that here.
Written by Jackson Ryan