The Scale of the California Wildfires

Wildfires have burned across the west coast of the United States for the past month with a size and intensity the likes of which have never been seen in recorded history.

While California and the Pacific Northwest face wildfires every year, the sheer size this year has been astonishing. The fires have already burned through about 6.7 million acres – an area larger than nine states – and 30 people have been killed across California, Oregon, and Washington. In Washington state more acres have burned in a single day than typically do in an entire year, according to The Washington Post. In Oregon, half a million people – over a tenth of the state’s population – are under an evacuation order. According to New York Magazine, over 30,000 firefighters and support personnel have been on the front lines battling to control the fires.

As has been widely publicized, the smoke from the fires has entered the atmosphere in the west coast, blocking the sun and turning the entire sky red. The inundation of smoke into the atmosphere caused such a drastic reduction in air quality that the west coast has the worst air pollution on the planet, according to The Washington Post. The smoke has spread out across the entire country, leading to hazy weather as far as the east coast.

 The combination of rising global temperatures, a long-term drought in California, and lightning storms have primed the region for wildfires. For the past 20 years, California has been enduring a “megadrought,” which is thought to be the second worst of its kind in the last 1,200 years. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, since 1999 the frequency of dry years has been twice the average frequency of the previous 100 years. On top of the drought, the west has faced an unprecedented heat wave with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit for multiple days in a row and even overnight. The humid air created ideal conditions for lightning storms, which were what ended up starting many of the fires in San Francisco Bay area.

Adding to the perfect storm of wildfire conditions is the COVID 19 pandemic, which has made it easier for fires to spread and harder to fight them. Because of the recent economic decline, many of the fire-prevention projects, like clearing out dry, dead plants, were neglected. Typically, many of the firefighters who work to contain these wildfires in California are prison inmates, but due to the rapid spread of the pandemic through prisons, many prisoners are sick, in quarantine, or have been released to house arrest and are unable to help. While necessary, social distancing rules have meant that firefighters are limited to small groups and running evacuations has been more difficult.

One of the most frightening and awe-inspiring elements of the wildfires has been the development of fire-induced tornadoes or “firenadoes.” According to the BBC, this phenomenon occurs when a fire heats the air above it and sucks in cool air below it, creating a form of cyclone. On such incident was reported in Redding, California in 2018, which was at the time the second ever documented example. In 2020 however, “firenadoes” have actually become somewhat commonplace, with one fire north of Lake Tahoe producing up to four, the Creek Fire producing another two, and the Plumas National Forest Fire producing “a handful” in a single night, according to the Washington Post.

Over the past few decades wildfires have become increasingly common and increasingly intense. Even before this year, the annual area burned by wildfires in the Us had increased by 500% since the 1970s, according to CNN. The west coast has been at the center of this trend with the BBC reporting five of the 20 biggest fires in California occurring in 2020 alone. The long-term implications are difficult to predict, but if nothing is done to stop this trend, there will be serious consequences for the west coast and indeed the entire United States.

Here at OpenEyes, we understand that this news installment has been uncharacteristically bleak and may not seem directly related to our work as a company. As energetic pragmatists, we believe in the value of  recognizing the problems we face today, anticipating those we will likely face in the future, and identifying innovative solutions to those problems that open up opportunity. OpenEyes’s history of making our clients’ lives better and more secure through IT solutions rests on this philosophy, and we believe that this is the philosophy that needs to be adopted in response to  increasing ecological, economic, and business change. The past year has unveiled a multitude of pressing issues and has challenged everyone in a variety of ways. At OpenEyes we recognize that these are hard times for many, but we see many opportunities for  creative, data-driven solutions that can help us all get where we need to go.

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