With all the news about the fires on the West Coast coming thick and fast, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed — a feeling echoed by climate scientist Daniel Swain of UCLA, who regularly tweets about weather and climate. On Wednesday morning, Swain wrote that “[s]tandard reporting/mapping procedures are essentially not capable of keeping pace with the unbelievable rates of spread now being observed on these fires—it is historically unprecedented.”
Everyone is so far beyond capacity right now, and there so much else going on, that I don’t don’t think the collective bandwidth exists right now to process what it happening.
— Daniel Swain (@Weather_West) September 9, 2020
His statements were echoed by his colleague Chris Field of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, who wrote that “[e]ven as someone whose job is to understand what’s happening, it’s really hard to keep up.” These are extraordinary comments to see coming from those who devote their lives to measuring and keeping track of the effects of climate change. (The clouds of smoke have been so intense that they have “made it unsafe for pilots to drop retardant and water, or surveil where the fires had been and where they were going” reported the Los Angeles Times.)
One thing that seems to stand out: These fires are extremely fast-spreading. One wildfire near Oroville in northern California “expanded by a quarter million acres in 24 hours” wrote Bay-Area-based Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian, adding, “That is a new kind of fire and we are in a new kind of era.” That may sound like hyperbole at first, but more than 3.1 million acres of California have burned so far this year, the largest amount on record—“with the heart of the Southern California fire season still to come,” reports the Washington Post.
The words “staggering,” and “record-shattering” have been used to describe the sheer size and speed of what has been happening. The August Complex fire in California is now the biggest in the state’s recorded history, wrote the New York Times in its “Live Update.” (And the wildfires are also striking Oregon and Washington state.)
Observers have also noted the strange light cast by the fires, with drivers having to turn on the lights of their vehicles in the daytime, amid weird, otherworldy skies. Images of an orange-colored San Francisco skyline were particularly startling and depressing, or what one headline described as “Martian orange.”
(Ash from the fire hung in the skies, where it was especially prone to absorbing colors from the blue end of the color spectrum in the atmosphere and leaving the orange and reds to predominate, a phenomenon explained in the BBC Weather’s page “Why has the San Francisco sky turned orange?”)
But the most insightful commentaries about the fires may have actually come from non-traditional media. Emily Atkin wrote in her latest Heated newsletter that “these wildfires are fossil-fueled. Fossil fuels cause climate change; climate change causes more intense wildfires. This isn’t rocket science. It’s climate science.”
Atkin also noted that if you want to get a sense of the magnitude of the crisis we’re dealing with, simply do a quick scan of Getty Images. “Type in ‘wildfire,’ and you won’t just get photos of the San Francisco Bay Bridge seemingly superimposed in hell,” she writes. “You’ll get photos of Brazil, Greece, Argentina, Indonesia, and Bulgaria, all of which have been dealing with chaotic wildfire over the last month, during [what Scientific American labeled as] one of the hottest years—if not the hottest year—in recorded history.”
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