California is on fire.
As this piece is being written, the Camp Fire is racing across northern California at a rate of about eighty football fields per minute. To the south in Ventura County, the Hill Fire has already scorched 30,000 acres in a single day. Although I am sitting safely in my home hundreds of miles away from either blaze, I can actually smell the smoke. The air is hazy and the sun has taken on an eerie reddish hue. It’s November. It hasn’t rained in months. And it’s not forecasted to anytime soon.
Earlier this summer, the largest wildfire in the state’s history — the Mendocino Complex Fire — burned so intensely that it generated its own weather patterns, creating ‘fire whirls’ that uprooted trees and ripped roofs off of homes. Stretching out over almost 500 square miles, the Mendocino Complex fire burned through an area roughly the size of the city of Los Angeles, and it was just one of more than a dozen infernos active in the state at the time.
Wildfire has always been a normal feature of California’s ecosystems. Periodic blazes serve to clean up dead litter on the forest floor and play an important role in the reproduction of certain plants. What is not normal are the climate change-fueled extreme weather conditions that have led to larger and more frequent fires. The period between fall of 2011 and fall of 2015 was the driest in California’s history, with 62 million trees dying in 2016 alone, largely due to drought. According to science writer Gary Ferguson, these prolonged droughts, coupled with broken heat records, have led to forests filled with trees as flammable as the kiln-dried timber found in lumber yards.
We’ve already reached a one-degree Celsius increase of average global temperatures, and at this rate, we may be on track for 4°C. As the reality of an increasingly chaotic climate begins to settle in, it must be viewed through the lens of social, economic and political realities as well, which often seem equally as stark as…