We should all be concerned
(@nytimes / Instagram)
This post was last updated on Thursday, September 24 to reflect current statistics.
For weeks, California has been burning. The wildfires that engulf the state light it up like a cancerous mass beneath a CT scan—and they continue to spread.
Each year, from May through October, California’s fire season brings fragrant, smoky flames that clog skies with smog and burn through billowing trees like they’re matches. Though a hazard in any given year, the difficulties associated with the current wildfires are compounded by COVID-19 and climate change.
This is the worst fire season the state has ever seen. And it hasn’t even finished yet.
The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s history, five on the list are already from 2020. The same list includes wildfires that date all the way back to the 1970s.
The largest recorded wildfire, August Complex, has resulted in one death and 862,733 acres of destroyed land as of September 16. Despite the disaster left in its wake, it currently remains only 38% contained.
As the west coast watches a familiarly blue sky switch to a scorched orange and red, some wonder whether there were warning signs along the way.
On September 6, less than two weeks ago, California experienced its hottest temperature on record: 121 degrees Fahrenheit. On August 16, the state recorded what many consider to be the world’s hottest temperature on record: 129.9 degrees Fahrenheit. To put those numbers into perspective for Floridians, the hottest recorded temperature for the so-called sunshine state reached only 109 degrees Fahrenheit. That was in 1931.
The stifling heat accompanies a similarly suffocating drought. The month of February in 2020 was the driest one recorded in California, following 2019’s third-wettest February. These extreme fluctuations are indicative of an equally extreme problem, one we created ourselves and can no longer hide from. Previously phrased as a topic of debate (as part of an almost-admirably desperate attempt to cling onto denial), climate change is no longer just rearing its ugly head—now, it’s pointing and laughing.
And now, amid our burning world, Californians struggle to catch their breath. Air quality plummets as it becomes saturated with smoke. An Air Quality Index (AQI) reads from 0 to 301 and above, with unhealthy air quality beginning at an AQI of 101. Last weekend, the majority of California’s outdoor monitors recorded an AQI over 100.
On a regular day, fine particles carried through smoke can cause serious health problems when inhaled.
If fine particles enter your eyes and respiratory system, they can cause burning eyes, runny nose, illnesses like bronchitis, as well as aggravation of chronic heart and lung diseases.
Currently, the risks associated with an unhealthy AQI are catalyzed by COVID-19. Not only does the respiratory illness similarly aggravate the lungs, it also targets the same high-risk groups of injury from unhealthy AQI levels. And because of COVID, fewer people are immediately available to combat the raging fires. There are currently over 18,200 firefighters at the forefront of the 29 fires, but conditions are only expected to worsen this weekend with a potential increase in temperatures.
Even for those unfamiliar with the severity of the scorching fires, it’s likely you’ve heard of the gender reveal party that resulted in contested conflagration.
On September 5, an expecting couple in Southern California set off a pyrotechnic designed to puff out plumes of pink or blue: each respective color stereotypically assigned to the confines of the gender binary.
Shortly thereafter, El Dorado Ranch Park erupted in flames. That fire has been ignited for 18 days, has been only 74% contained since, and has burned through 22,601 acres of land.
Despite the nature of the jokes surrounding it, the consequences of the fire are far from light. Worsening an already apocalyptic-scale problem, the El Dorado fire is responsible for already burning down 20 building structures. It directly impacts two counties, San Bernardino and Riverside. It’s injured 13 people and has already claimed one fatality. It petrifies countless trees where they lay rooted. It steals the sweetness from the sky, it swallows fields of green, it puts humans and other neighboring species at risk.
While the fires rage, and while residents continue to hold their breath, we hope for a more stable future once the smoke subsides. But if there is one lesson fire season brought with it, it’s that change will take more than hope.