Burning Forests and Common Sense

Why the recent burning of the West Coast should be a BIG wake up call


Photo Courtesy of Noah Berger

In late August, hazy smoke hung over the Riverside basin for days on end, sprinkling hot ash on car hoods and unsuspecting shoulders like apocalyptic snowfall. While we were wheezing, California was suffering four of its five largest wildfires in modern history. Along the West Coast this year, 5.8 millions acres of land burned. That’s an area larger than the state of New Jersey. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes and dozens lost their lives. Entire towns were razed.

Things haven’t always been this way. According to a study posted by CBS, California has experienced a fivefold increase in the acreage of land burned annually since the 1970s. This rapid incline can largely be attributed to one factor: the onslaught of global warming. 

“Climate change is the biggest conservation challenge facing the Forest Service in the 21st century,” said forester Randy Moore in the U.S. Forest Service website.

With this in mind, one would assume that the U.S. government would equate combating global warming with protection of its citizens in the West. However, efforts in the White House to fight climate change have been sparse. Our current presidential administration has demonstrated both a lack of concern for the potentially cataclysmic effects of climate change and a limited understanding of the phenomenon. In a meeting last month, California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot pleaded with Trump to acknowledge the role of global warming in the wildfire crisis. Trump responded by proclaiming, “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.”

Due to the global buildup of greenhouse gasses since the late 1800s, Earth’s temperatures have been rising consistently. California’s average temperature has increased by three degrees Fahrenheit in that meager span of time. Three degrees may seem insignificant but it helps account for California’s nearly ten-year drought and this summer’s record-breaking heat wave. The connection between global warming and increased fire danger isn’t just about temperature. When the air is hotter and drier, it soaks up moisture like a thirsty sponge. In forests, higher temperatures and prolonged drought kill trees and dry out their carcasses. More than 147 million trees died in California between 2010 and 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Some climate change skeptics still persist and reject this almost universally accepted and proven concept. Instead, they blame California for mismanaging forestland. It’s true that decades of nationally mandated fire suppression have contributed to the buildup of fuel: if small fires had been allowed to burn, they could have cleared out kindling before the big fires struck. But to place all the blame on California forest management is to use them as a scapegoat. Not only does this avoid acknowledging the role of global warming, it also misdirects responsibility. Most of California’s forests are on federal land— which the federal government is responsible for maintaining.

However, climate change isn’t a fundamentally political issue; instead of pointing fingers, now should be a time for solidarity. These fires have shown that in crisis, political motives and opinions are the least of our concerns. Right now we have the privilege of discussing global warming as a topical issue rather than a formidable reality. The fires should be a slap in the face to remind us of the necessary change we need to make before these kinds of conditions become the new normal. We’ve likely all heard stories, statistics, lectures and so forth about climate change but we are now seeing it unfold before our very eyes. Now is the time to stop politicizing the health of the world we live in and commit to improving it. While agreement and harmony is rare in America these days, the survival of our species is something most if not all people can get behind. Because ultimately, when ashfall replaces rain, when smoke and smog replace air, when the consequences of our actions unfold before us and we are too late to do anything about it, the disputes we are having now aren’t going to be that important.