Wednesday, September 16, 2020
The West Coast fire season still has months to run, but it’s already one for the record books. Some 3.3 million acres have burned in California, and another 1 million in Oregon. In some cases, separate fires have combined into fire “complexes,” or “megafires.” At least 35 people have died, with others still unaccounted for. Media reports have almost all focused on a single explanation. “California’s climate apocalypse,” read the banner headline on the Los Angeles Times’s September 13 edition. The New York Times, CNN, NPR, and other outlets used similar doomsday language in linking the fires to climate change. Politicians echoed them. “We’re in a CLIMATE CRISIS,” California Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted on September 11.
The emphasis on climate is not incorrect. Higher average temperatures are linked to longer fire seasons, and hotter, dryer conditions do appear to lead to larger fires. It is reasonable to assume that rising temperatures increase the risks of fire in Western landscapes. Nonetheless, focusing on climate as the all-purpose explanation for wildfires is a dangerous oversimplification. In truth, the factors that cause large Western fires are complex. Climate is one. The impact of humans on the ground is another. People play a large role not only in igniting wildfires, but also in altering the conditions through which fires move and grow.