• Anaya Sheikh

Blazes in the West

As high temperatures, strong winds, dry forests, and lightning storms are affecting California, Oregon, and Washington, one California family decided to throw a gender reveal party with a “smoke-generating pyrotechnics device." The result? It set off the El Dorado fire burning 22,601 acres so far through the San Bernardino National Forest. No one knows if the device streamed a bright blue or pink signal for the family to celebrate over. This incident did not help the effort to battle 23 other fires burning in California, along with 12 more in Oregon, which over 16,000 firefighters are trying to contain.


This outbreak occurred when the remnants of two tropical storms, Fausto and Genevive, drifted across Northern California around mid-August, unleashing 15,000 lightning strikes on dry forests. Downed power lines from strong winds also played a role in spreading the blazes and the collective toll of the infernos amounted to 19 fatalities in California alone and the burning of 3.4 million acres since August 16th. Offshore, dry winds drive these extreme blazes to produce mushroom-cloud-like plumes of smoke that reach a height of 40,000 feet and fire tornadoes that make it impossible for firefighters to contain the blazes. On September 8th, the daily smoke emissions reached 1,057,348 metric tons, according to researchers at South Dakota State University and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


One of the biggest spectacles from the outcome of the fires came when residents of the San Francisco Bay awoke to see Martian orange skies on September 9th and birds failing to sense daybreak. According to NASA and the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry,the reason for this sight lies in large smoke and ash particles that scatter longer wavelengths of red light, instead of the shorter wavelengths of yellow, blue, and green, in a process known as Mie scattering. The intense updrafts of smoke and ash that rose as high as 50,000 feet had residents using headlights in the middle of the day to drive. The result of all this smoke leaves Portland, Oregon with the highest air quality index (over 200) among all major world cities.. An index of 0 to 50 is healthy, 50 to 100 is moderate, while 100 to 150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups and 150 is unhealthy for everyone. Such conditions can also worsen COVID-19 symptoms.


A study by IOP Science published in August shows the impact of climate change on the extremity of wildfires during the dry seasons. It found that the days with extreme fire-weather conditions have more than doubled since the 1980s. One of the main reasons for the outbreak, the severe lightning strikes caused by the tropical storms, moved farther north in the Pacific than they otherwise would have because of the warmer waters.


California Governor Gavin Newsom has also expressed his concern about the role of climate change in this situation on Twitter and other platforms and stressed how the country must face these challenges to prevent future disasters: “Climate change isn’t something that is going to happen in the future. It’s happening right NOW”. According to a People article, on September 23, Newsom has a new order that “would require all new cars and passenger trucks that are sold in California to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035” as a way to fight climate change and foster jobs that will spur economic growth.


The governor also signed a bill into law that allows those who served as firefighters while incarcerated to get paid jobs as firefighters. California relies heavily on prison labor for its firefighting efforts, so many incarcerated firefighters put their life on the line for just a few cents and no realistic path into the career (The Guardian). Mexico’s National Forestry Commission even recently sent firefighters to aid California’s crisis. In a CNN article, the Mexican agency’s national fire director, Eduardo Cruz, stated “Fires do not have borders, fires do not have different languages and cultures. In the end we all speak the same language when it comes to fighting fire.”