• Sofia Penttila

The Burning State

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

For Californians, ten years ago climate change may have seemed like a problem of the far future but, this past month it has become far too real as they watch a giant blanket of smoke cover there burning cities.


Daniel Swain is a climate scientist at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. Referring to the Cal fires he says, “I’ve spoken to maybe two dozen fire and climate experts over the last 48 hours and pretty much everyone is at a loss of words. There’s certainly been nothing in living memory on this scale.


Wednesday, September 9th, marked the 21st consecutive “spare the air” day California faced due to raging wildfires across the west coast. I remember waking up at six-thirty in the morning, turning off the alarm ringing on my phone, and opening my curtains, just like any other mundane Wednesday morning. As I slid open my curtains, I stared straight at a hazy, orange sky. Despite the sun having risen, it’s red glare only added to the apocalyptic vibe.


An annual destructive fire season is, and has always been a California norm, but ever since 2010 researchers have noticed fire season getting longer and longer. Climate change has a huge part to play in this. Although most fires, including the current one, devastating almost the entire west coast, are caused by human activity, it’s climate change that prolongs how long they last.


In an interview with the NY Times, one climate scientists explain climate changes role within the west coast fires best by saying, “the mechanism driving the wildfire crisis is straightforward: Human behavior, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, has released greenhouse gases that increase temperature, desiccating forests and priming them to burn.”



Changes in climate are causing many parts of the west coast, especially California to experience droughts, leading to drier conditions, especially in vegetation rich areas, such as forests. Lack of water causes trees, bushes, and other forms of vegetation to become drier, resulting in an increase in flammability. California’s dry forests serve as the perfect catalyst for forest fires. All they need is for someone to start them.


California’s Governor Gavin Newson remarks, “If you are in denial about climate change, come to California”, shortly after declaring a statewide emergency. Climate scientists are claiming that in many ways this year’s wildfires have been decades in the making. California has been battling a prolonged drought causing its forests to be covered in dried up leaves, and trees, so this year's record-breaking fire weren't a matter of how but rather, when.


If it somehow wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now; climate change is a real, pressing, and current issue, and there’s no denying it. Californians are experiencing some of the worlds worst air quality, - reaching up to 500 US AQI, (20 US AQI is considered healthy air) in the SF Bay Area, and fleeing from fires that are burning their homes, and schools, all while trying to stay safe from COVID-19.


We need climate action immediately, California is our last warning.