California wildfires: climate change or something else entirely?

February 25, 2019

California residents were faced with a brutally hot summer this year, one that was far from ordinary. There remains some debate, however, about whether climate change is the cause for the catastrophic weather.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the temperature of California has risen, by about 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895. Additionally, according to Michael Anderson, California State Climatologist, the last five have included some of the most record-breaking heat years since people started keeping track of temperature 124 years ago.

Furthermore, California has already been experiencing heavy drought and very windy conditions in recent years, resulting in massive forest fires not just being a possibility, but an ongoing reality. According to California state officials, the current death toll from the most recent fires is at 84 lives. Additionally, over 10,000 buildings were destroyed, and 52,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes. Air quality has also plunged because of forest fires, as California government officials stated that the air quality there had dropped well below air qualities of heavily polluted China and India. Government officials suggested that people in California should stay indoors and wear heavy-duty face masks when forced to go outside.

While it is widely agreed upon by a majority of the scientific community that a major cause of the wildfires were very high temperatures, there remains a large debate over whether the California wildfires were caused by climate change or not. According to the National Academy of Sciences, climate change is a major reason behind about half of the drought in California that researchers have been seeing an increase in since the 1970s. Furthermore, climate change can cause more lightning strikes and generate higher winds and arid conditions which are prime suspects of wildfires. Moreover, spring snow melts much earlier in California now, meaning that lands in California have more time to dry out.

According to Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor at Penn State University, “We’re not saying that climate change is literally causing the events to occur. What we can conclude with a great deal of confidence now is that climate change is making these events more extreme.” For example, more arid conditions and heat in California will cause more intense fires, Mann said. These are what California residents have been seeing in the Thomas Fire and the Mendocino fire, which was the most intense fire ever recorded in California history.

According to Meteorologist Rob Marciano, California experienced an unusually long heat wave, even for July standards, last summer. Many of the nights that wildfires broke out the temperatures were well above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, which according to Marciano, presents an undeniable link to climate change.

However, while many people and experts are convinced that the California wildfires were caused by excessive heat, there is a sect of skeptics who believe that the wildfires were actually not caused by climate change, but instead poor forest management, lack of water in the area Many people who live in California have believed for a long time that the massive 33 million acres of forests in California are managed very poorly. California congressman Tom McClintock stated that “Forty-five years ago, we began imposing laws that have made the management of our forests all but impossible.” He later reported that federal authorities have not done enough to implement ways to lessen the effects of dangerous wildfires. Federal regulation was passed in 1910 that mandated all wildfires to be put out instantly and was revised in 1970 allowing some forests to burn themselves. However, many people and experts suspect that this regulation is causing forests to become overgrown, and making new wildfires significantly more extreme.

It will always be widely debated on whether or not climate change has been causing these wildfires, as there is solid evidence for both sides of the argument. Even without knowing the exact cause, it is still important for people to be careful of forest fires.   

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