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California Wildfires Break Records (Again)

California is on track to experience yet another record-breaking wildfire season. These are the disastrous consequences of climate change.

Otto Fors

July 15, 2021
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Photo: Noah Berger

California is currently on track to experience its worst-ever wildfire season. So far, nearly 143,000 acres have burned across the state — three times as much land as during the same period last year. If these trends continue, California may surpass last year’s record-breaking wildfires, which burned 4.1 million acres, around four percent of the state’s total land area. These fires are a clear result of climate change, demonstrating that even the wealthiest parts of the world are not immune to the cascading series of environmental catastrophes unfolding across the world.

California has already seen 4,991 wildfires this year, up from 700 during the same period in 2020. Last year’s fire season resulted in over 30 deaths, mass evacuations, and the destruction of more than 10,000 buildings. Apocalyptic scenes showed ash raining down on parts of the west coast and smoke blotting out the sun and darkening skies. Some cities experienced some of the worst-ever air pollution on the planet. But California is not alone: wildfires have scorched over 900,000 acres of land across 12 states so far in 2021, notably in Oregon, New Mexico, and Arizona. 

Climate change is clearly to blame for these devastating fires. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “While wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year.” The department estimates that the fire season is 75 days longer than the average across previous decades and confirmed that “climate change is considered a key driver of this trend.”

You might be interested in: How Bad Will it Get? Climate Catastrophe and Capitalism

Specifically, extreme dryness underlies these massive blazes. 2021 has been one of California’s driest years, with the state receiving less than half of its average rainfall, and climate change is pushing the rainy season later each year. Coupled with record-breaking heat waves across the west coast — Death Valley recently recorded a temperature of 130°F (54.4°C), the highest ever recorded on the planet — vegetation in California is far dryer than it should be at this time of year. Dry vegetation means more kindling for wildfires. 

This year’s wildfires are also notable for their speed and intensity. A fire in Oregon grew by 100,000 acres in just one day, and some residents even reported seeing a “firenado” near the state’s border with California. Al Lawson, an incident commander, commented that, ​​“The fire behavior we are seeing on the Bootleg Fire is among the most extreme you can find and firefighters are seeing conditions they have never seen before.” This means that the wildfires are getting much harder to contain and can cross barriers, roads, and even bodies of water. 

But the catastrophic consequences of wildfires are not limited to the short term. Rather, these fires contribute to feedback loops in which the devastating effects of climate change impact each other and accelerate climate change. Forest fires increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (and decrease the amount of trees that can absorb it), which in turn leads to more warming, more drought, and more fires. Intense wildfires can even create their own weather conditions, as when the extreme heat and wildfires in British Columbia this month caused intense thunderstorms that sparked more fires. These kinds of feedback loops virtually guarantee not just more wildfires across the world, but also more warming, more extreme weather events, and more deadly consequences for people across the world.

Climate change and California’s catastrophic wildfires are also a clear consequence of capitalism, a system that requires infinite growth and endless fossil fuel extraction on a finite planet. As such, we cannot count on capitalist politicians to fix a crisis of their own making. In fact, despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s progressive image and hand wringing about climate change, California approved 100 new oil-drilling permits this year and a dozen fracking permits. The state — the seventh-largest oil producer in the U.S. — does not plan on banning fracking until at least 2024. 

Californians must demand the end of fossil fuel extraction in the state immediately and directly challenge the power of capitalists who will ensure that the climate crisis continues unabated. They must also fight to protect the sectors that are most vulnerable to climate-related harm and displacement, particularly people of color and the unhoused. Across California, the United States, and the world at large, the energy sector needs to be nationalized under worker control in order to transition away from an ecologically devastating system based on short-term profit and toward a planned, rational, and sustainable economy based on human need. 

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Otto Fors

Otto is a college professor in the New York area.

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