A single, devastating California fire season wiped out years of efforts to cut emissions and put the brakes on climate change. It left an estimated 11,000 people displaced in the hills of Ventura and Los Angeles counties. And it set a record for the most active fire season ever.
Climate change is real, and there’s a strong consensus that it is the fundamental challenge confronting humanity. Yet while the world is busy debating whether to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to zero, it turns out, science is still looking at the opposite question: what should we do about the fires that rage across forests, chaparral, dry pine forests, and grassy meadows across the West?
It turns out that climate change has a lot to do with it — or at least a lot to do with the severity of the fires. A single fire season is likely to be a blip on the climate radar for most of the nation. But the fires that were burning just a few weeks ago in California are still burning at a record pace. In a week, they’re about to become the kind of wildfire that has ravaged the Northwest and Great Plains for the past few centuries. And the fires that burned across California two months ago have already become one of the most destructive fire seasons in history.
But this is the first time that so many people have been affected so intensely by such a single phenomenon. It’s not hard to imagine what they’re feeling.
As it happens, it’s not just Californians who are concerned about these fires. There’s also tremendous concern in a number of places.
In Washington, DC, the Forest Service is preparing to evacuate about 50,000 residents living within three miles of the burning forest. In Oregon, the governor is asking the state legislature to spend more than a half billion dollars to help victims of the fires, as well as to provide a state emergency fund for people affected by the fires. In New Mexico, federal officials are planning to deploy 250 firefighters who will work in collaboration with the National Guard in areas where evacuations or closures have been ordered, and who will be paid for with state, local, and federal money.
In the face of this kind of devastation, the first thing we should do is recognize and acknowledge the reality of what is happening. There are some very serious lessons we