By Karen Ramirez
The rise in natural disasters associated with a warming planet is a well-known phenomenon of climate change. These natural disasters include record-breaking hurricanes, droughts, storms and heatwaves that have affected people worldwide. Additionally, the rise in average temperatures has helped to create the perfect conditions for more intense and difficult to extinguish fires leading to a marked increase in destructive wildfires. Many geographic areas have experienced an increase in wildfires, including the Arctic. While the outbreak of fires has been widespread globally, California has received a high level of media coverage due to the unprecedented number and magnitude of fires affecting the state.
Unfortunately, California has a history of record-breaking wildfires. In 2017, the coastal city of Santa Barbara experienced the largest fire in California’s recorded history. Partly due to its immensity, it took thousands of firefighters several weeks to extinguish this fire. By the following year, there were two even larger fires that devasted communities in northern California and resulted in 85 deaths. As a result of these fires, in 2019 rolling power blackouts were implemented in California in an attempt of fire prevention. This meant that many regions of California had their power shut-off for days at a time during high-wind events to reduce the risk of fires starting from the electrical wires on utility poles being blown down by the wind.
In 2020, the trend of record-breaking fire seasons continued in California. In August, large lightning storms throughout the state caused hundreds of fires to ignite and burn at the same time. This led to many towns throughout the state being enveloped by smoke, which can be very harmful to breathe – causing short and long-term health damage. When air quality levels have deteriorated during previous fires, people were advised to stay indoors or to wear N-95 masks to help filter out dangerous particles. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, these masks were no longer easily available, even for agricultural laborers picking food outside during hazardous air quality conditions.
California, like many other parts of the world, has also had record-breaking high temperatures in 2020. The Mohave Desert during August 21, 2020, broke the record for the highest recorded temperature on the planet at 54࿁C. Other parts of California have had sweltering temperatures at the same time that people have been advised to stay indoors with their windows closed to prevent exposure to smoke. With the increased heat – there has been an increased amount of energy usage as people who have access to air conditioning resort to it to escape the heat. This increased demand on the power grid has resulted in power outages.
California is often seen as a predecessor of what awaits other countries due to its 2࿁C increase in temperature in the resulting consequences. As the rest of the world follows in this warming trend, it can be expected that more people will experience severe climate-related events first-hand. While first-hand experience could lead to an increase in concern and a pathway to action – it could also lead to “climate apathy” and rapid adaptation to these once-unthinkable changes to day-to-day living conditions. The now year-round fire season in California has led some to question whether to continue living in this state, but for many others, it has meant adapting to this new normal and possibly forgetting that there was a time in which every new year did not bring a new record-setting fire season.