Eighty-year-old Roland Pagan watched through binoculars while wildfires devoured his home in Juniper Hills, Calif. “The ferocity of this fire was shocking,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It burned my house alive in just 20 minutes.”
The fires have intensified conversations about global warming and whether it contributes to such disasters. Activists blame humans for the changes to the climate that they say contributed to the wildfires ravaging the West Coast. But others hold responsible government officials who make policy about caring for the forests.
An already destructive fire season flared up in mid-August. More than 1,000 lightning strikes hit the Bay Area the weekend of Aug. 15–16, and a freak wind event swept through the Pacific Northwest just three weeks later. In California, more than 8,000 fires have destroyed more than 6,600 structures, and at one point more than 500,000 people in Oregon were under some level of evacuation warning. The blazes burned millions of acres and killed more than 30 people on the West Coast by mid-September.
David Romps, director of the University of California’s Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center, said average daily temperatures in the area have risen 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 120 years. In 2014, he published in a paper in the journal Science saying every 1.8-degree rise in temperature can increase the frequency of lightning strikes by about 12 percent.
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, cautioned in MIT Technology Review that prolonged lightning storms in Northern California are rare, making it difficult to assess if climate change played a role in starting this year’s fires. He said a heat wave and dry conditions—a result of warming temperatures—made the fires more intense.
Park Williams, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, compared the dry atmosphere to a thirsty sponge “that’s always trying to extract water from the landscape.” When the land becomes drier and there’s not enough moisture for evaporation, the atmosphere builds up heat, he told the Los Angeles Times.
But others say the wildfires resulted from decades of forest mismanagement. Bob Zybach is an environmental scientist who spent more than 20 years as a reforestation contractor. He said climate change played almost no role in the fires. “The lack of active land management is almost 100 percent the cause,” he told The Daily Signal.
In the final days of his presidency in 2001, Bill Clinton signed legislation limiting the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to clear dense foliage and downed trees on federal land in the West. To prevent over-logging, he also restricted building new roads and using existing ones on 49 million acres of national forests. This prevented officials from watching for a buildup of wildfire fuel. Years of hands-off policies left dead trees and organic matter sitting on the forest floor, providing ample kindling for fires, Zybach said. He warned officials decades ago: “If you don’t start managing these forests, then they are going to start burning up. … Thirty years later, they are still ignoring it.”
Other experts have made similar arguments. “Global warming may contribute slightly, but the key factors are mismanaged forests, years of fire suppression, increased population, people living where they should not, invasive flammable species, and the fact that California has always had fire,” University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences Cliff Mass told The Daily Signal in 2018.
A study published in Nature in January found nearly 20 million acres in California—covering an area about the size of Maine—need controlled burns to limit catastrophic wildfires. Fire ecologist Timothy Ingalsbee agrees prescribed burns are the best way to prevent wildfires but said his recommendations fall on deaf ears.
“It’s horrible to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been clear for years,” he told ProPublica. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”