Residents of the West Coast peer outside their windows to see a sky of flames: an apocalyptic red-orange haze covering the states of California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Already the cause of 35 deaths and tens of thousands of displacements, these fires do not just pose a threat to land (more than five million acres burned), but to the lives and livelihoods of many in vulnerable financial situations. Mobile home parks in particular have fallen victim to the wildfires, further expanding the cascade of damage and distress for residents who now must find temporary shelter. These wildfires of the past year are much more frequent and deadlier than past ones, due to the ravaging effects of climate change.
The use of a pyrotechnic device for a baby’s sex reveal party on Sept. 5, 2020 has been labeled as one of the primary causes of the wildfires, igniting first in Los Angeles and then rapidly expanding. As of now, fires still blaze on the Pacific-bordered states, with dryness and rising temperatures only fueling them further. Firefighters are in constant dispatch to quench the fires that they can safely, but that’s only a small proportion of the ever-growing destruction. Mandatory evacuations are forcing many people onto the streets, a dangerous situation made even worse by a groundswell of armed vigilantes who are trying to protect their property from vagrants.
As fear and flames engulf the West Coast, so too does the smoke that’s causing multiple hazardous air warnings in the region. Airlines are suspending flights across these due to low visibility from the smoke and haze. Composed of noxious chemicals, this wildfire smoke has serious health consequences including compromised immune systems and an increased possibility of lung infections. With Western states battling the wildfires and COVID-19 at the same time, the combined effects of the smoke and the virus put their populations in a state of extreme vulnerability, especially for the displaced people living in shelters.
This Western wildfire smoke has made it all the way to the New York skies on the East Coast, bringing haze and vivid sunsets. It has even traveled thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, where the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service in Europe has detected these particles in the air. The effect of the fires on the atmosphere has also been recorded by space agencies, which state that the smoke and pollution are accelerating global warming.
Climate change is directly linked to the recent prevalence and expansion of wildfire and extreme weather events, but in the United States, no real attempts have been made to progress fundamental legislation to heal the damaged environment. Perhaps this is not surprising, as those most deeply affected by climate change are poorer communities and communities of color, demographics often ignored by those in power. Just as the neglect of science in this pandemic has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, similar consequences await if we do not listen to experts and take action.
Many words are being thrown around by the 2020 presidential candidates under the topic of wildfires. While President Trump has highlighted the need for better forest management, and evidence does show that forest managers can reduce the risk of fires spreading and smoke emissions, his political rival Joe Biden has called for a much greater reckoning of climate change. Due to these unprecedented times brought on by the harmful impacts of climate change, even the traditionally non-partisan Scientific American announced that it is backing Biden for the presidency.
Human-caused climate change is stated by researchers as a key factor in increasing the risk of forest fires, meaning it is up to individuals, be them leaders of an environmental club, concerned citizens or lawmakers, to take action. Wildfires are not a two-sided political issue, but a matter of fact and science.