A devastating fire season is continuing to blaze a destructive path across the Western US. Infernos in California, Oregon and Washington state have caused at least 36 deaths, with dozens missing and thousands of homes destroyed or evacuated since the season began.
On Friday came news that a firefighter was found dead amid the charred landscape of the El Dorado fire. That fire was accidentally started by pyrotechnics set off for a gender reveal party outside Los Angeles.
The Sacramento Bee reports that four of the five largest fires in California history are currently burning in the state.
This week the wildfires seem to have moved into a new phase, with cooler temperatures and rain helping firefighters, but also raising the risk of flash floods, which is highly elevated in recently burned areas. Officials warn that fire season is far from over, and the volatile combination of heat and dry lightning could return, leading to new fires and flare-ups.
Flames are now spreading in Idaho and Utah, and smoke from the conflagrations is causing a veil of haze to descend over the length of the country, reaching as far east as New York City, with satellite images confirming Wednesday that smoke from the fires has been carried all the way to Europe. In the Southwest, which has been spared from the worst of this fire season, migratory birds are dropping dead by the hundreds of thousands, with some speculating that the smoke may be playing a role.
In places like San Francisco, Blade Runner-esque orange skies have alarmed residents. Air quality became so degraded it forced the closure of Yosemite National Park. Driven by some of the hottest temperatures on record and exacerbated by climate change, the situation is grim.
California's wildfires have already burned more acres than any year on record. As of Friday, there are major blazes burning in at least eight Western states, according to the interagency incident information system (Inciweb). Data from the system and the National Interagency Fire Center indicate that nearly 10 million acres have already burned in 2020, putting the season on track to soon become the most destructive in nearly 70 years with several weeks of peak fire season still on the way.
Oregon fires have burned more than 1 million acres, said Gov. Kate Brown. She called the blazes a "once-in-a-generation event." Firefighters seemed to gain the upper hand on the fires this week, but new threats sprung up further to the south where the small town of Paisley was evacuated due to a human-caused fire.
The images and stories coming out of the US West are eerily reminiscent of those experienced by Australians late last year and early this year, when vast swaths of Australia burned. The skies turned orange, and smoke blanketed the country's largest cities. Entire cities were flattened. Now, across the Pacific, this grim history is repeating.
Here's what we know about the ongoing fires and how you can help from the US or afar.
If you'd just like to find out where to donate or how you can help, you can skip to the end of the page by clicking here
Why did the West Coast wildfires start?
Fires can start in a variety of ways. Human activity, like carelessly discarding a cigarette, poorly maintained infrastructure or even gender reveal parties with pyrotechnics can spark fires. Some of the wildfires currently blazing across California are the result of accidental ignition.
Fires can also be deliberately lit, though arson has not been linked to the current conflagrations. Rumors have circulated through social media that some of the fires may have been intentionally set by either right-wing or leftist activists, leading some officials to mount social media campaigns of their own to dispel the myths.
The El Dorado fire in California was started by a gender reveal party that used devices similar to fireworks, igniting dry grasses and eventually burning over 18,000 acres outside of Los Angeles.
Nature also conspires to begin fires, with lightning strikes a major concern. In California, intense thunderstorms kicked off a number of large blazes in August. Prolonged periods of drought and mismanagement of national forests may also play a role in helping these fires start. With the fire season getting longer, the window to perform critical hazard reduction burns has decreased, giving fires a chance to really take hold. The risk of the wildfires burning across the Western US was well-known to scientists and, regardless of the origins, fires are fueled by a dizzying number of factors.
A lack of rain and low soil moisture can help enable small fires to grow in size, and coupled with the high temperatures and fierce winds, small fires can quickly become huge infernos. This all feels extremely similar to anyone familiar with the bushfire crisis confronted by Australia in January. Environmental factors contributed significantly to the unprecedented fire season down under and they are playing out again in the US -- partially driven by the negative effects of climate change.
How are wildfires and climate change connected?
Wildfires aren't started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The Climate Council, an independent, community funded climate organization, suggests fire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils, and record-breaking heat in Australia. The link between fires and climate change has become a political football, but experts agree climate change explains the unprecedented nature of the current crisis.
Wildfires are getting worse in the US. According to data from the Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity program, on average, there are more wildfires, and they are burning more land each year. A study published in July 2019 concluded that "human-caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California ... and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades."
There's no question that 2020 will be one of the hottest years on record for the planet, and a 75% chance it will be the hottest ever, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Increased temperatures allow fires to burn more intensely and also cause forests to dry out and burn more easily. The heating is unequivocally caused by climate change.
"The debate is over around climate change," California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters on Friday, standing in a charred landscape. "Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes. It's not an intellectual debate. It's not even debatable."
There is also a horrifying feedback loop that occurs when great swaths of land are ablaze, a fact the globe grappled with during the Amazon fires of 2019 and the Australian bushfires of 2020. Huge fires release large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The gas, which makes up only a small percentage of the total gases in the atmosphere, is exceptionally good at trapping heat.
Andrew Sullivan, a fire research team leader for CSIRO, an Australian government research agency, examined how technology may help predict and fight against fires. In September, he told CNET that "changes to the climate are exposing more areas to the likelihood of fire."
How many wildfires are currently burning?
Inciweb currently lists over 100 fire incidents in ten western US states that are considered active. These are all at different levels of containment. The greatest conflagrations remain in California and Oregon, with some growing concern about Idaho.
More than 5 million acres have burned in California, Washington and Oregon alone. One of the largest fires during the Australian season, the Gospers mountain megafire, burned through around 2.2 million acres. "Unprecedented" is the word again being used by officials, weather services and media to describe the size and severity of the blazes. The dust and ash from the fires have turned the skies orange across California.
Blazes in Oregon have been increasingly destructive, driven by heavy winds. "I want to be upfront in saying that we expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and human lives," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said during a briefing Tuesday. "This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state's history."
Washington has also experienced significant fires, with almost 350,000 acres burned in a 24-hour period in early September. Two large fires broke out on Sept. 8, and Gov. Jay Inslee said "more acres burned ... than in 12 of the last 18 entire fire seasons in the state of Washington."
More recently, fires have sprung up in Idaho, including one that quickly grew to over 84,000 acres.
The New York Times has an informative fire map that can help you track where conflagrations are burning.
Who's fighting the fires?
In California, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, heads up the wildland firefighting effort, but actually beating back the flames on the ground is a massive collaboration that also involves local, county and federal resources. Teams of National Forest Service and other agencies' "hotshot" teams travel from as far as New Mexico to fight fires on the ground.
California also employs a controversial "conservation camp" program in which prison inmates are trained to fight fires. Prisoners can earn time off their sentences and continue toward a career in emergency services upon their release. But the program has been criticized for the dangerous work that comes with meager pay.
Many conservation camps have been sidelined in the wildfire fight during this record-breaking season due to outbreaks of the coronavirus. But as of Thursday, inmate crews were out on the line fighting the out-of-control Creek Fire near Fresno.
The fires dragging on for so long and continuing to spark in new locations brings the risk of resources being depleted. Fire crews are being deployed to fire lines for several days at a time, only to be re-deployed with minimal time for rest and recovery between assignments. Firefighters from Los Angeles have made the long drive to help fight fires in northern California, only to see the need for those resources back home as blazes grow in the southern part of the state.
What about the smoke from the wildfires?
The smoke and ash from wildfires can irritate the respiratory tract and make it harder to breathe. During Australia's bushfire season, there was a stark increase in the amount of calls to ambulance services and researchers have demonstrated there may be a significant health burden on those exposed to smoke. Respiratory distress sees more people entering hospitals in the US during a typical wildfire season.
Fine particles in the air can cause damage to the lungs and increase inflammation in the short-term. What is less certain is the long-term effects of exposure to smoke.
We have become intimately familiar with the use of masks over the last six months, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but you may be wondering whether you need to use one to protect against smoke from wildfires. The short answer is: You probably should, but filtering smoke and ash out of the air requires an N95 or P100 mask -- and public health officials suggest these should be reserved for health care workers. They also cannot completely filter out some of the gases present in wildfire smoke.
Cloth masks and other coverings we have become familiar with during the pandemic will not be effective at protecting against smoke. The US Environmental Protection Agency says remaining indoors and limiting your time outdoors is "the most effective way" to protect yourself during wildfire emergencies.
You can find current air quality data from AirNow for your ZIP code, city or state.
How you can help
- America's Red Cross Disaster relief and recovery fund helps support evacuation centers and recovery programs for affected communities.
- GlobalGiving has opened a Wildfire Relief fund that will provide relief and support for those affected by the fires. You can donate at their website.
- Direct Relief has been helping with the effort to get particulate-filtering masks across Californian communities, much like it did in the Australian bushfire season. You can donate to their efforts, which support disaster relief across the world, here.
- The California Community Foundation is taking donations to support immediate disaster relief and long-term recovery efforts. You can find the donation link here.
- An all-cause GoFundMe has been created to distribute funds to various, verified GoFundMe campaigns.
- The Salvation Army has a donation page for the fires to assist on the ground by providing food, water and support.
- The California Fire Foundation provides emotional and financial assistance to families of fallen firefighters, firefighters and the communities they protect. You can donate here.
- The Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation is looking to fund resources for the wildfire season and widespread emergencies. You can donate here.
- The Los Angeles County Fire Department Foundation has a donations page for "supporting our paramedics, firefighters, lifeguards and other personnel along with important community programs."
- The (City of) Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation "is actively raising funds for wildland brush clearance tool kits and other important safety gear for the men and women of the LAFD."
- United Way Bay Area has established a wildfire relief fund to provide immediate and long-term recovery assistance.
- VEMAnet, the Volunteers for the Emergency Management of Animals Network, provides assistance to animal owners in times of urgency. You can request or provide help by heading to its website.
- There are a number of great mental health resources for those in distress. Mental Health America has collated an extensive list of phone numbers and aid. Americans can call Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255 and the Disaster Distress Helpline on 1-800-985-5990.
Other things you can do
- Raise awareness! You can tweet and share and post this story -- and dozens of others -- all across the web. More eyeballs means more help to those who need it.
- Run your online searches through Ecosia, which uses profits to plant trees where they're needed most. Trees help reduce the carbon dioxide load. It can be added to Chrome.
- In the US, if you want to contact elected officials and make your voice heard about climate change action -- you can do that here.