By David M. Greenwald
In 1987, I was a freshman in high school in San Luis Obispo. One miserable day the temperature hit a whopping 111 degrees—the highest in the country that day and the highest ever on record. I remember that day 33 years later because the heat was so stifling and there was no escape—back then, hardly anywhere had air conditioning.
But in 2017, the temperature topped that at 115. And then on Sunday, it topped that even that, with a frightening 120 degrees.
“This is unmatched, just unprecedented, unreal,” said John Lindsey, a meteorologist with Pacific Gas and Electric. “These are Death Valley temperatures. And it’s scary because, with climate change, will this be a regular occurrence?”
In just over 30 years then, the hottest temperature on record went up by more than nine degrees.
That’s not the only record to get shattered. Here in the valley we have been socked in with smoke and unhealthy air for at least the last two weeks. And there is no end in sight. In recent years we have pointed out that the fire season has gone later—lasted longer, been more impactful.
Some of course will point out that we have always had fires. But guess what—what we are seeing is unprecedented.
But this is worse than usual. Worse than ever. Over 2 million acres of land have burned, a new record.
Oh and guess what—the previous record was set in just 2018.
Governor Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday that the state was facing an “extraordinary” challenge this wildfire season.
“The word ‘historic’ is a term we use often in the state of California, but these numbers bear fruit,” he said at a press conference.
“It’s a little unnerving because September and October are historically our worst months for fires,” Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire added.
We often warn folks that weather and climate are not the same. The problem is that this is not a one time occurrence—things are getting worse.
Last year was bad—4927 fires by this time. This year is worse. 7606 fires.
Said Governor Newsom: “The challenge we’re facing now is the extreme fire events that we believe are climate induced.”
Climate change impacts the extremes, but also the average. People keep saying there have always been fires. True. But they are getting worse.
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told CNN it is shocking to the see the impacts of the wildfires in the Western U.S., “but not scientifically surprising.”
The result is that temperatures are climbing higher while vegetation is becoming drier.
“But climate change has not just made the extreme heat waves that coincided with the fires worse. The bigger effect is the more subtle, long-term warming,” he said. “That couple of degrees of (average) warming over decades … you don’t notice it as much, but it’s still there lurking in the background, sucking extra moisture out of the vegetation and the soil.”
Fires are not only destructive, but they have widespread health impacts.
“Of all the climate change exposures we study, heat is the No. 1 killer,” Rupa Basu, chief of air and climate epidemiology for the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said in an interview last month.
The health impact is not only heat stroke and dehydration, experts are seeing increased risk from chronic illnesses including kidney disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“Most of the time you won’t see it on a death certificate, because people with underlying conditions are pushed to the edge,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, a UCLA professor of public health and medicine. He is the former L.A. County public health director. “They have a cardiac condition, they have a respiratory condition or other conditions, like COVID. So I’m very concerned about it, and I think it’s really important that people take this very, very seriously.”
California had the worst air quality in the world on Tuesday. According to some reports, the smoke has caused some of the worst air quality in the world.
NPR’s Nathan Rott, who covers the environment and climate change, recently explained on a podcast, “We do know that climate change increases the odds of vegetation—you know, the trees, brush, grass are dry and ready to burn. So climate change’s fingerprints are kind of all over these extreme fires, even if we can’t say it’s the cause.”
He added, “There’s a whole lot of research showing that climate change is going to make the conditions for extreme fire far more likely in the future, you know, not just here in the U.S., but around the world, so more fires burning at greater intensity in more places than ever before. You know, think about the fires that are also currently burning in Siberia. And it’s not just because we’re getting these kind of crazy record-breaking hot days, it’s that nights are getting hotter, too.”
The key is not just fires, but record fires and record fire years on top of record fire years. That’s what we are up against.
—David M. Greenwald reporting