By Sarah Brill, Science and Technology Editor
On August 17, 2020, 37 wildfires, named The August Complex, started burning as a result of lightning strikes on the Mendocino National Forest. The fire has now spread to regions in the Coast Range of Northern California, in Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Tehama, and Trinity Counties. At 520,000 acres burned, climate scientist Daniel Swain, of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA stated “that is ‘an unbelievable number to say out loud, even in the last few years.’” This California wildfire has now been deemed the biggest fire ever recorded in California and is now 60% larger than its starting size and has covered a total of 746,000 acres of land.
“Recently, ‘we have seen multiple fires expand by tens of thousands of acres in a matter of hours, and 30 years or more ago that just wasn’t fire behavior that we saw,’ said Jacob Bendix, a professor of geography and the environment at Syracuse University who studies wildfires.” With every environmental condition, whether that be drought or flooding, there is a standard, or a normal amount of time these conditions are meant to occur. However, the mere size of these fires, coupled with the intensity at which they have maintained throughout the past month have been associated with drought conditions that specifically relate to climate change. This is one of the prime factors in this fire behavior trend. “‘When you have a fire run 15 miles in one day, in one afternoon, there’s no model that can predict that,’ U.S. Forest Service forester Steve Lohr said, ‘The fires are behaving in such a way that we’ve not seen.’”
So how much is climate change playing a role in these wildfires? The ignition of the fires, in and of itself, was unusual, as a “‘dry lightning’ storm, which produced nearly 11,000 bursts of lightning between August 15 and August 19, set off devastating wildfires across California.”
“The storm … was the result of a particular, unusual set of circumstances. But the region was already primed for fires, the stage set by a prolonged and record-breaking heat wave in the western United States — one of the hottest temperatures ever measured on Earth, at Death Valley, — as well as extreme dryness in the region (SN: 8/17/20). And those conditions bear the fingerprints of climate change,” Daniel Swain says.
“‘The extreme dryness is particularly key,’ he adds. ‘It’s not just incremental; it absolutely matters how dry it is. You don’t just flip a switch from dry enough to burn to not dry enough to burn. There’s a wide gradient up to dry enough to burn explosively.’”
The residents of California are confined to their home as California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that the air quality in wildfire zones “is equivalent to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes.” This type of exposure could be detrimental to a person’s lungs and could also increase the risk of getting COVID-19. 28 people have been killed due to these wildfires and dozens remain missing.
Let us keep in mind, wildfires are not uncommon to the Northern California area, due to its dry weather and windy conditions, but unlike the annual fires that occur, these ones are the direct result of climate change. Just like the recent fires in the arctic, with the length of burn time, along with the damage of such a large area of land, it can be concluded that these are abnormal fires and are caused by climate change. If we choose not to address this climate crisis soon, our planet could be at risk of extinction.