The downtown skyline is pictured amidst the smoke from the Bobcat fire in Los Angeles, California, U.S., September 10, 2020. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Climate change is making wildfires stronger while global warming  makes  heat waves more frequent, intense and longer-lasting.

As multiple wildfires rage across western states, including California, Oregon, and Washington, scientists warn that climate change is delaying the onset of winter rains in California, which will result in a prolonged wildfire season along the coast. 

Making matters worse is the early start of the strong, extremely dry windy conditions known as the Santa Ana winds, along with back-to-back heatwaves, before California’s wildfire season arrives. 

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Sept. 10 report, “approximately 14,000 firefighters remain on the line of 29 major wildfires burning across California.” The report continues: “Although 37 new fires were sparked yesterday, crews contained most of them quickly though two have grown to large wildfires.” Since the beginning of the year the wildfires have burned over 3.1 million acres in California, with 12 fatalities recorded so far and over 3,900 structures destroyed. “This year’s fire season has been a record-breaking year, in not only the total amount of acres burned, but 6 of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in 2020.”

Scores of people in the affected areas have complained about poor air quality from the smoke and ash raining down as fires gut swathes of forest and city structures across the states. Epidemiologists are warning that the hazardous conditions can result in respiratory complications. According to the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region, 30 extreme fires continue to rage across the region, burning down 1,032,860 acres across Oregon and Washington. “This is more than a 100% increase in just 48 hours. Conditions are still hot, dry and windy,” the service announced on Twitter. 

As many as 500,000 residents in densely populated northwest Oregon are evacuating as fires close in.  

Meanwhile, climate scientists say a complex series of weather events exacerbated the wildfires, with smoke from the fires reaching as far as Mexico and Canada. Meanwhile, scores of residents from the affected areas took to social media, posting pictures and videos showing an eerie orange-colored sky caused by the thick smoke cover that blotted out the sun, resembling scenes right out of an apocalyptic horror flick

Alexander Gershunov, a research meteorologist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, told The Real News that two major heat waves within two weeks impacted most of the southwest and Pacific northwestern California: “The convergence of heat and tropical moisture set the conditions that led to the lightning strikes which ignited most of the wildfires,” Gershunov said.   

Gershunov explained that the dry, windy season typically picks up in October, but fires are always caused by the humans one way or another. “These winds start in October and peak in December and are the main drivers of the wildfires. But there is never lightning to ignite the fires, which is what happened this time around and is extremely rare.” 

“The windy season is now setting in at a time when the wildfires are already burning,” Gershunov added. “California’s historic peak wildfire season [October] is still ahead of us, and these wildfires may just be a prelude to that.” 

Gershunov cautions that “we will see how the rest of the fall and winters go in coastal California as we enter the peak wildfire season and we may want to discuss the climate issues.” He noted that climate change is one of the main ingredients making the wildfire season longer and intense. “Climate Change is like steroids, boosting the wildfire seasons. And global warming is making heat waves more frequent, intense and longer-lasting. Back-to-back heat waves broke temperature records in all places and are an important ingredient in setting off early wildfire season.”  

According to the researcher, climate change is postponing the onset of the rainy season in California, which will cause more situations like the Thomas Fire—the massive wildfire ignited in Southern California in December 2017, regarded as the biggest in the state’s history until an even bigger 2018 wildfire topped it. 

“If winter rains are delayed again then we are looking at a very long wildfire season in coastal California,” Gershunov said. 

David Orr, a Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics Emeritus and senior advisor to the president of Oberlin College, told The Real News that the climate scientists are reluctant to definitively say these events are caused by climate change although the evidence is apparent. “We live in a radically altered world now. There will be more of those lightning that started off the wildfires until there is not much left to burn. And the West Coast was also hit by two hurricanes one after another. This is not climate change. It’s climate chaos.” 

These fires are all predictable events, and much has been written as far back as the late 19th century about global warming and climate change induced by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, Orr explained. 

“Nothing here is unpredictable or should be unforeseen in the light of scientific research done for decades. And what is happening in Washington is anything but,” he remarked. “And yet fossil fuel is still getting tax breaks and Trump is in the White House because some people have vested interest in climate chaos.” 

Aman Azhar

Climate Change Reporter
Aman is an experienced broadcast journalist with multimedia skills and has more than a decade of international reporting experience. He has previously worked with globally recognized news media brands, including BBC World Service and VOA. Aman brings with him several years of reporting experience covering political, and diplomatic affairs.