While the West's climate — especially in California — has always made it prone to fires, the link between human-caused climate change and bigger fires is inextricable, according to Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
"This climate change connection is straightforward: Warmer temperatures dry out fuels," he told The New York Times. "In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark. In pretty much every single way, a perfect recipe for fire is just kind of written in California. Nature creates the perfect conditions for fire, as long as people are there to start the fires. But then climate change, in a few different ways, seems to also load the dice toward more fire in the future."
Loading the dice this year were record high temperatures — 121 degrees in Los Angeles in September, and 130 degrees a couple of weeks ago in Death Valley.
Then Mother Nature pulled the sparking ace from her sleeve and loosed scores of lightning strikes over northern California in a span of 72 hours. People didn't help, especially with at least one fireworks party.
Now the fires have spread to Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah and Montana. More states are on alert as skies up and down the coastal Pacific Northwest blaze orange. Close to 100 wildfires raged to scorch 2.2 million acres of land by mid-week.
At least one of the fires developed into what scientists call a plume-dominated blaze. That fire, dubbed the Creek Fire, sent smoke, embers and fine particles 45,000 feet in the air last weekend, forming a pyrocumulonimbus cloud that became a fire-driven weather system unto itself — complete with its own lightning strikes and fire tornadoes, based on Doppler radar data and satellite images.
The National Weather Service in Reno, Nevada, was forced to issue what is believed to be the first weather alert of its kind: a "fire tornado warning."
It wasn't just California and the Pacific Northwest that were hot. The massive heat dome over western North America established September heat records from Mexico to the Colorado Rockies. Denver hit 101 degrees. Boulder, Colorado, hit 99 degrees. Two days later, residents there were scraping snow from their car windshields.
Meanwhile, here in Chattanooga, we're seeing our own weather craziness. Our near-mid September finds us with a year-to-date rainfall measuring 52.39 inches — an amount that in most years is within a trace of our total yearly rainfall. Normal rainfall here at this time of year is 36.25 inches. Now we're entering fall when we usually get another 16-17 inches. The west is scorched and we are lush with the overgrown green of a very wet year so far, following two previous wettest Tennessee Valley years on record.
Studies show human-caused climate change is tilting the odds in favor of more extreme rains, storms and winds to the Southeast and more frequent, severe and longer-lasting heat waves — and larger wildfires — throughout large parts of the West.
Michael Wehner, who researches extreme weather events at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, estimates "climate change has caused extreme heat waves to be 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in California." These trends "will continue as the planet continues to warm," he told The Washington Post.
So, no, it's not because Californians don't rake their forests, as our climate change-denying president has suggested.
A July study by the World Weather Attribution project involving climate researchers from multiple institutions in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom also noted a stark new finding: Prolonged January-to-June heat in large parts of northern Siberia that caused a record spike in wildfires across the Siberian Arctic (along with an Arctic temperature record in June of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) was virtually impossible without human-induced global warming.
NASA's Vital Signs of the Planet website puts it this way: "The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95% probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades of millennia."
We know what we have to do. We have to build a more resilient and sustainable infrastructure that embraces alternative energy sources. And soon.
We also know who won't do that. His name is Donald Trump. And we know who will. His name is Joe Biden.
In mid-July, Biden put forward a $2 trillion energy and climate plan that has some bite, both for the earth and for rebuilding the U.S. economy. That plan calls for 100% clean electricity by 2035. That means the winding down of carbon pollution from the electric sector in 15 years. Even 15 years is pushing the limits. But we've already wasted four years, and we cannot afford to waste any more.
Of course, Biden's plan also has some distinctive detractors — the usual suspects, the oil and gas lobby and Republican leadership — proving that it is indeed a worthwhile plan. After all, the oil lobby and our current Republican leaders never met a drop of oil or wisp of coal pollution they couldn't love, primarily because those lobbies feed their gravy trains.
We know what we have to do. And the time to do it is nigh — Nov. 3.