For much of the west coast, the sight of a bright red or orange sky can signal two things: a beautiful sunset or raging wildfires. In the last 35 years, there has been a steady increase in the amount of land that has been burnt by fires yearly. The late 1980s saw about 2.5 million acres burned per year, a number that pales in comparison to the 8 million acres burning per year since 2015. In California, most of the state’s most massive fires in history occurred within the past decade, with their largest, third, fourth, and eighth-largest fires burning in 2020 alone. People are losing their homes, belongings, livelihoods, and lives due to these devastating wildfires.
Feeling the heat of climate change
Now, why are the current fires worse than in previous years? Firstly, there is a downward trend in the number of fires per year, but there is an upward trend in the acres of land burned annually. An August study suggests that these wildfires’ primary cause is “anthropogenic [human-caused] climate change.” Researchers take into consideration the average air temperature, amount and frequency of precipitation, and historical record in California to calculate the estimated risk of wildfire, more commonly known as the Fire Weather Index (FWI). According to the study, the majority of the top 1% of the largest fires happen after a two-day period with a high FWI. Since the 1980s, the average number of days with a high FWI rating has quadrupled. Consequently, we see more destructive wildfires than ever before, with 88% being the result of human-caused climate change. Because of these striking statistics, the case to reduce the effects of climate change. In reducing climate change, we could save lives, homes, and the beautiful natural landscape only grows stronger.
Raging fires create surreal landscapes
It is easy for those who don’t live near wildfire zones to let their destructive ramifications become simply headlines in the news. Fire season is far from over, and an estimated 2 million California properties are at risk of damage and 220 thousand people have been forced to evacuate their homes.
Anais Markwood, a Colorado State University freshman, lives just twenty miles from the Cameron Peak Fire. Markwood stated that the fires make the college campus look “apocalyptic and horrifying.” She vividly described the heavy smoke blacking out the sun and making the near mountains almost invisible. On Saturday, September 5th, she noticed how the fire affected the air and environment firsthand. There were “blue skies and everything in the morning, but I could see the cloud [of smoke] approaching.”
Markwood noted that the sky was gray, and the sun was red, stating, “it was almost the color of a car taillight.” That night, it rained ash. This surreal change in the sky continued into the next day. By 10 am, the sky “essentially looked like a sunset,” despite only being midmorning. She also added that it rained “ash pretty much all day,” so “every surface was covered with it.” The ash led to a significant decrease in air quality.
The noxious smoke created by wildfires permeates the air for miles, endangering those in a close radius. Smoke exposure can cause temporary symptoms, such as a runny nose, coughing, sore eyes, and headaches. However, being at risk for severe smoke exposure due to poor air quality can cause smoke-triggered asthma in the future. There are also several demographics of people who are more sensitive to smoke exposure, including young children, the elderly, and those with preexisting respiratory conditions.
Markwood also described feeling the smoke’s effects on her own body, saying, “my lungs hurt from breathing it in, even though I was wearing a surgical mask.” Anaïs stated, “by the end of the day, my chest felt really tight, which is supposedly one of the symptoms of COVID-19.” Thus, people living in wildfire regions are often concerned about both smoke exposure and coronavirus.
How Can We Help?
With the Cameron Peak Fire being only 8% contained and already having burned over 100 thousand acres of land, there is no telling when its flames will be extinguished. Markwood’s story is just one of thousands whose lives have been changed by the wildfires’ destruction.
Indeed, the wildfires’ impacts have even impacted members of our writing team, such as Shannon Cassidy. Shannon has published articles with the Commoner detailing her experience living in San Francisco with her son and husband. Whether you are a mother with a young child or a student, the fear of COVID and wildfire exposure have uprooted education, work, and even leisure time without prejudice.
As a society, we help people who have been affected by the wildfires in various ways. Most immediately, we can provide charitable aid and food donations to regions that have been struck by wildfires. Luckily, there are nonprofit organizations that are on the ground supporting these communities. In the longer term, we can band together to fight practices that cause wildfires and climate change. We need specific policy initiatives to help combat climate change while also building an infrastructure to support the wildfires’ current victims. Together, we can find solutions that help the economy while promoting the sanctity of our world’s health. We can fight this together, and together we can make a change.
Evan Fleischer is an intern at The Commoner who just graduated high school in Massachusetts and is taking a gap year. He will enter into the class of 2025 at Tufts University in the fall of 2021 and major in chemical engineering. He is passionate about science, mathematics, and tennis, and he loves to learn.