What to Know About the Wildfires
Good morning. Wednesday was another exhausting, sad and outright disturbing day in California as fires continued to tear across the West, killing …
Wednesday was another exhausting, sad and outright disturbing day in California as fires continued to tear across the West, killing a 1-year-old boy in Washington, at least three people in Oregon and three more in Butte County. Towns have been destroyed. Skies over the Bay Area turned a shade of orange that can only be described as hellish.
[Read the latest updates here.]
Today, we’re taking a step back and answering some questions you may have:
How did the wildfires start?
Most of the fires in California are caused by people, like the El Dorado Fire, which has grown to more than 10,000 acres and which you have probably heard by now was ignited when a family used a “pyrotechnic device” at a gender-reveal party.
Many others are caused by more mundane human actions, like driving a car that sends soot into dry vegetation, as was the case with the Apple Fire in Southern California this year.
[Read more on how to help victims of the wildfires.]
Still others have been caused by power transmission lines or other utility equipment, which may spark and ignite fires in remote areas. Pacific Gas and Electric equipment caused the deadly Camp Fire in 2018.
In Oregon, The Statesman Journal reported that fires in the Santiam Canyon area were ignited when falling trees knocked down power lines.
But sometimes natural phenomena are to blame, igniting fires in essentially unavoidable ways. This year, unusual dry lightning storms sparked some of the biggest blazes.
Once the fires get started, fierce winds have blown them out of control up and down the West Coast.
What role does climate change play?
Experts say that climate change is driving the severity of the fires — how big they get, how quickly they spread, and how difficult it is to fight them as they bear down on communities.
This year’s fires have been made worse by a record-shattering heat wave, which scientists have said is part of the region’s increasingly extreme swings between hot, dry weather, when fires are likely to start, and heavy rain that spurs the growth of plants that will become fuel for fires the next time the weather turns hot and dry.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has emphasized the ties between climate change and the severity of this year’s fires.
“Never have I felt more of a sense of obligation and a sense of purpose to maintain California’s leadership not only nationally but internationally to face climate change head on,” he said on Tuesday.
The legacy of a more than century-long policy of total fire suppression is also rearing its ugly head, experts have said. That policy of extinguishing every fire has harmed ecosystems that naturally depend on fires to clear space for new growth, as well as Native American communities who have used fire to care for huge swaths of land for millenniums.
Is this year worse than other wildfire seasons? Why?
In a word, yes. More than 2.5 million acres have burned this year, far outstripping any previous record in the state’s history.
Daniel Swain, a California climate expert, told me recently that he was alarmed by the sheer breadth and acreage of the blazes burning at the same time across a variety of ecosystems. On top of that, it’s still early in the wildfire season, which scientists have warned repeatedly is stretching longer and longer.
“I’m running out of superlatives,” Mr. Swain said — and that was late last month.
The fact that the fires this year are layered atop the pandemic is another reason it feels so different. For millions of Californians, the outdoors are a respite. But now, smoke has made the air outside toxic across much of the state, national forests are closed, and some of the places most treasured by residents are being damaged.
[Track coronavirus cases by California county.]
Where are the wildfires burning? Which ones are the most troubling?
There are currently dozens of fires burning just in California — so many that it’s tough to pinpoint which are the most pressing.
Meteorologists on Wednesday were alarmed by the rapid overnight growth of the Bear Fire, which approached Lake Oroville and got unsettlingly close to where the town of Paradise was devastated by the Camp Fire.
The governor and others have also warned that some of the biggest fires that have been fought by fire crews for weeks should not be underestimated.
[Track the biggest fires in California, Oregon and Washington here.]
What should I know about air quality?
For millions of Californians fortunate enough to be outside the direct path of the flames, air quality is a major concern. One look out the window in the Bay Area on Wednesday morning yielded a pretty clear indication that things were not normal.
Beyond that, you can check AirNow, a website and app run by the Environmental Protection Agency, for the Air Quality Index. Anything above 100 is bad for sensitive groups — which includes even more people than usual, in light of the pandemic. Experts have said that poor air quality could aggravate Covid-19 symptoms or make people cough more, making them more contagious if they are infected.
[Read more about the A.Q.I.]
We’ve heard from Bay Area residents who say they rely on PurpleAir, another website that uses data from its air quality sensors around the world.
If the air quality is poor in your area (and it is in much of California), you should try to stay indoors with the windows closed if possible. A high-efficiency air filter is helpful as well. Many Californians, though, have neither option, and must head out to work each day in low-paid essential jobs, often in farm fields.
Why is the sky orange?
According to the Bay Area Air District, the region’s air pollution control agency, the orange skies around San Francisco and in much of Oregon and Washington are the result of ash and smoke from fires, rising high and spread widely by strong winds. The smoke particles tend to scatter blue light from the sun, while allowing “yellow-orange-red light to reach the surface, causing skies to look orange,” the agency said on Twitter.
If the smoke is thick enough, most of the sun’s light reaching that area will be scattered and absorbed before reaching the ground, causing those apocalyptically dark skies during the day.
How can we stop fires from happening?
Many experts say that’s the wrong question. Instead, they say, policymakers must recognize that wildfires will happen, and discourage or ban development in fire-prone areas. Local leaders must take steps to make their communities easier to flee on short notice, they say, and homeowners can do things to keep their homes from being damaged.
Forestry and fire management experts are increasingly saying that prescribed burns must become a bigger part of the strategy. In a prescribed burn, firefighters and other professionals intentionally light fires in areas where excess vegetation should be cleared, at times when the weather is not too hot and dry to control the flames. Then when a wildfire strikes those areas, it won’t burn as hot or as destructively.
CalMatters has this helpful guide to the many possible fixes — and why we haven’t done them.
California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.