Fires along the West Coast have scorched millions of acres of land since the end of August. The El Dorado Fire, Bear Fire and Santiam Canyon fire are among the dozens tinting the Western skies orange and forcing residents to evacuate. Wildfire seasons continue to grow worse every year, and 2020 is no exception.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, almost 6.7 million acres have burned this year, equivalent to the area of London. In California alone, Gov. Gavin Newsom reports his state has had 7,606 blazes in 2020, compared to 4,972 in 2019, with five of the 20 largest fires in California’s history occurring this year. Gov. Kate Brown reported over 1 million acres burned in Oregon. Tens of thousands of people have evacuated their homes and over 30 have died. It is still early in the wildfire season.
“Instead of the smoke being sort of above us, it descended on us. That’s when the air quality got really bad,” said Haley Miller, a sophomore liberal arts major from Tigard, Oregon. “By the time the original cloud or wave was moving past us, the fires around Portland were really starting up, so we didn’t get a break. It looked like something out of 'Blade Runner.'"
Portland suffered the worst air quality in the world last week, with Seattle also representing the West Coast in third place.
“This past weekend, my family and I drove from Los Angeles to Bellevue,” said Maya Thomas, a senior English major from Bellevue, Washington. “We drove through Talent, Oregon, where the worst of the fires were in the state. The air quality was bad enough for us to have to wear masks in the car. When we passed into Washington, the air was gray with smoke. The sky cleared up by Wednesday in Bellevue, but Seattle has stayed smokey all week.”
Air quality continues to pose a threat not only to those near fires, but all around the world. As the Western fires consume more acreage, their plumes of smoke grow and are sent across the country by the jet stream. According to the European Commission Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS),the smoke has already traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and reached Northern Europe.
“Once we started getting smoke, we couldn’t leave the house except to go to the store. Even if you were in the car, you’d feel it itching your throat and stinging your eyes. For about two weeks, I just sat inside, went to class, watched TV and tried to pass the time. It was like a double-down on the regular quarantine,” Miller said.
Scientists attribute the severity of recent fires to record high temperatures in West Coast states this summer and fall. According to the National Weather Service, California recorded new highs in Woodland Hills at 117 degrees, Palmdale at 111 and tying in Burbank at 113. An increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves is also to blame, which, along with extremely dry weather trends, are both a result of climate change.
“I’ve heard a lot of debate over whether the fires have anything to do with climate change. It’s upsetting to hear that even after all of this, there are people who doubt the existence of climate change and refuse to acknowledge any correlation between the fires and the state of our world. It’s heartbreaking,” said Thomas.
Federal fire management grants have been made available to California, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved relief funds for affected states, including Oregon and Washington.
“I want to say that I think these fires might change the conversation on climate change drastically, but this pretty much happened last year. Oregon wasn’t as affected, but California seemed like hell on Earth. Maybe because another state is in the same boat now, it’ll spark some progress,” said Miller.