Scientists have found that climate change—which has largely been driven by pollution from the production of natural gas, coal, and oil—causes an increase in the risk of wildfires.
Roughly 40,000 Oregon residents have had to evacuate as dozens of wildfires burn across the Pacific Northwest. That means thousands of people have had to leave their homes behind, unsure of what, if anything, they’ll return to.
The fires, which currently cover nearly 900,000 acres, have killed at least four people, destroyed thousands of buildings, incinerated entire communities, and caused hazardous air quality that can harm the lungs—a particularly perilous consequence given the ongoing battle with COVID-19, a respiratory disease.
The wildfires have also led to surreal, dystopian conditions across the state that, more than any data or report, visibly highlight the growing and very real threat of climate change.
Oregon is not the only state impacted by these catastrophic disasters either. Its west coast neighbors Washington and California are also dealing with dozens of devastating wildfires, the scope of which have stunned even climate experts.
“It’s really shocking to see the number of fast-moving, extremely large and destructive fires simultaneously burning,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the New York Times. “I’ve spoken to maybe two dozen fire and climate experts over the last 48 hours and pretty much everyone is at a loss of words. There’s certainly been nothing in living memory on this scale.”
In California, at least 10 people have died, dozens remain missing, hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and tens of thousands of residents face evacuation orders as the state simultaneously battles three of the four largest fires ever recorded. Much like in Oregon, the consequences of the California fires have been extremely apparent for residents, even for those who have not been displaced or directly harmed.
In Los Angeles, the city suffered its worst levels of lung-damaging pollution in 26 years this past weekend, while farther north, much of the San Francisco Bay Area experienced downright apocalyptic skies on Wednesday.
Wildfires are nothing new to California, but the scope of this year’s damage is unprecedented. In 2018, which was a historically destructive fire season, 1.9 million acres burned across the state.
This year, more than 3 million acres—an area twice the size of Delaware—have already burned, and the state still has to get through September and October, which are traditionally the worst fire months in California.
Things are equally grim in Washington, where at least one person has died and more than 480,000 acres have burned this week alone. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, was blunt in addressing the root cause of the “unprecedented” fires.
“A fire that you might’ve seen that was going to be OK over time is not OK anymore because the conditions are so dry and are so hot because the climate has changed,” Inslee said at a press conference on Tuesday. “This is a new world.”
A String of Disasters Exacerbating One Another
Overwhelming amounts of research back up Inslee’s case. Scientists have found that climate change—which has largely been driven by pollution from the production of natural gas, coal, and oil—causes an increase in the risk of wildfires. This warming of the planet leads to hotter temperatures, less consistent rain seasons, and drier soil and vegetation—which creates a perfect storm of conditions for fires to start and spread.
Some of the ongoing fires in Washington, California, and Oregon appear to have been caused by humans, but the shocking speed with which the fires have grown is attributable to the consequences of climate change.
“This climate-change connection is straightforward: Warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark,” Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the New York Times this week.
The events of the week have also highlighted a long-time fear among climate experts: the cascade effect, in which a string of disasters overlap, causing or exacerbating each other. This reality played out in California, where an intensely hot summer led to extremely dry conditions, which allowed wildfires to spread faster, resulting in larger fires that create more hazardous air quality.
The US government, which has been slow to address the reality of climate change, also struggles to prepare for the cascade effect, according to Mark Harvey, who was senior director for resilience at the National Security Council until January.
“The government does a very, very bad job looking at cascading scenarios,” Harvey told the Times. “Most of our systems are built to handle one problem at a time.”
The cascade effect will also continue even after the fires have burned out. Wildfires can cause pollution of drinking water, and the hazardous air they produce can have long-term medical consequences for residents, especially those with asthma and older people.
In the short term, the fires also amplify the dangers of COVID-19.
“Wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that cause COVID-19,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.
There are also severe economic consequences. Insurance companies are increasingly reluctant to provide property coverage in fire-prone areas, which could reduce home values and make them more difficult to sell.
In fact, as the West Coast burned, the larger economic consequences of climate change also became increasingly clear this week. A report commissioned by federal financial regulators found that climate change poses an existential threat to America’s economy, as the costs of extreme disasters like wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods will wreak havoc on insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds, and other financial institutions.
“A world wracked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system,” concluded the report from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates complex financial products, like futures and derivatives, related to stock and commodity markets.
While it might be tempting to refer to the ongoing nightmare as a “new normal,” experts caution that it’s actually the beginning of something much worse.
“This is very much a way station on the path to a new future,” Swain told BuzzFeed News. “We have not reached the peak. In fact, no one knows where the peak is.”
Simon Donner, a climate scientist at the University of British Columbia, agrees, and warns that the world must take action.
“This is not a new normal. As long as we keep adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the planet will continue to warm,” Donner said in a tweet. “Adapting to ‘today’ is not enough. The future is going to be even warmer, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect a revised estimate of the number of Oregonians asked to evacuate because of the wildfires. Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management had erroneously announced Thursday that 500,000 residents were asked to leave their homes; state officials clarified that information Friday afternoon.