In the last decade, amid drought and searing heat, California has entered the ‘era of megafires’ and has become the ‘examplar for climate change extreme events today’
There’s an idea that when the climate crisis begins, we will know it. Movies present it as a moment when the world’s weather suddenly turns apocalyptic: winds howl, sea levels surge, capital cities are decimated. Climate messaging can bolster this notion, implying that we have a certain number of years to save the day before reaching a cataclysmic point of no return.
Living in expectation of a definitive global break can blind us to the fact that gradually, insidiously, the climate crisis has already arrived.
In few places is this as clear as California, where extreme wildfires have become the new abnormal. There is currently a “fire siege” in northern California, with wildfires burning in every one of the nine Bay Area counties except for San Francisco, which is entirely urbanized. Tens of thousands of residents have evacuated and people are choking on smoke.
The circumstances of these blazes are unusual. They began with a tropical storm deteriorating in the Pacific Ocean, spinning off moisture in the direction of California. As it made landfall in the San Francisco region over the weekend, it sparked a remarkable lightning storm, and 10,849 lightning strikes were tallied in three days.
Over millennia California’s landscape has adapted to burn, with some tree species requiring the heat of flames to open their seed cases, and lightning-sparked wildfires are not unusual. But the state has been experiencing unheard-of heat, and just logged what may have been the hottest ever temperature recorded on earth: 129.9F in Death Valley, a few hundred miles southeast of the Bay Area lightning swarm. Vegetation is achingly dry and primed to ignite.
California’s governor announced on Wednesday that there were 367 fires, and conflagrations have grown so rapidly that there are not enough firefighters to tackle them all. Neil Lareau, an atmospheric scientist, told us in an interview that he was watching the current fires with “incredulity”.
“It seems like every year re-ups the previous year in terms of pushing the envelope, in terms of how much fire we’re seeing in the landscape and how severe that fire is,” he said.
Read more: The Guardian