In the same week that Hurricane Ida has swept through Louisiana and continued its destruction along the American east coast, tragically taking the lives of at least 43 people, a state of emergency has been declared in California over historic wildfires that are highlighting the unparalleled and continuing effects of the climate crisis.
Record temperatures and low humidity have created tinderbox-like conditions along the west coast, with fire crews currently battling more than 24 blazes across the state of California. Unprecedented fires in the state’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, an epicenter of the California wildfires, encapsulates the fresh challenges that climate inaction could bring to areas previously thought to be safe.
WILDFIRE UPDATE: The raging #CaldorFire continues to threaten communities near #LakeTahoe, seen here last evening from @NOAA‘s #GOES17🛰️. At last report, the #wildfire had grown to 186,500+ acres and the governors of Calif. and Nev. have declared states of emergency. #CAwx #NVwx pic.twitter.com/K6qqs5KB8b
— NOAA Satellites – Public Affairs (@NOAASatellitePA) August 31, 2021
In previous years, the Sierra Nevada mountain-tops have had enough moisture and snowpack to prevent annual fires along the west coast from spreading. But thanks to a dramatically shifting climate creating extremely dry conditions, wildfires have spread from one side to the other of the mountain range for the first time ever.
The mountainous region is currently battling two major fires, the Caldor fire and the Dixie fire, both of which have caused unforeseen destruction, putting in danger areas not usually at risk of wildfires and forcing evacuations of over 50,000 people.
The Dixie fire first began on July 14 around 200 miles north of the Caldor fire, and to date has burned over 844,000 acres. Despite raging for almost two months, just 52% of it is currently contained, and its sheer size has qualified it as the second largest wildfire in California’s history — only behind last summer’s million-acre August Complex Fire.
Meanwhile, the Caldor wildfire has been burning since August 14, and has spread across 204,390 acres. Approximately 4,200 firefighters are assigned to tackle it alongside a squadron of over 24 water-dropping helicopters, but currently just 20% of the fire remains contained.
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No deaths have been reported as a direct result of the fires, although mass evacuations have taken place across the west coast and over 700 structures have been destroyed in the wildfire’s wake.
The effects of climate change upon exacerbating the destruction has been acknowledged by state officials.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Thom Porter told the LA Times that “we need to be really cognizant that there is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before … two times in our history (fires have spread across the mountain range) and they’re both happening this month.”
This message was echoed by the department’s spokesman, Chris Anthony, who stated that “historically, we’ve used terms such as ‘anomaly,’ ‘unprecedented’ or ‘extreme’ to describe the wildfires that we have seen burn throughout the state over the past 10 to 20 years… these terms are no longer appropriate given the clear trends associated with drought, changing climate and un-resilient forest stands. Unfortunately, these factors contribute to the resistance to control that we are seeing with the Caldor fire.”
One of the areas newly at risk due to the changing climate landscape is the Tahoe Basin. A region made up of picturesque wood cabins and ski lodges, the area has traditionally served as a prime vacation spot in California’s summers and ski location in the winter. Dry conditions compounded by high winds have rendered the protective granite surroundings less effective than the basin usually experiences, and the fire’s unprecedented spread has put the previously-safe region in harm’s way.
A large majority of the region has been evacuated, and over 34,000 structures are at risk.
South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tamara Wallace told CNN that “there was a huge amount of granite between the fire and us and I woke up on Sunday and it had jumped that granite and now it is in the Lake Tahoe basin and homes are threatened”, adding that the saga poses a fresh hazard to the community that they “never thought was possible.”
This morning, @CAL_FIRE said that the Caldor Fire swelled to more than 204,390 acres and was 20% contained. More than 700 structures have already been either destroyed or damaged by the fire.
Video taken yesterday in Nevada shows smoky, orange skies from the #CaldorFire: pic.twitter.com/Rn6wXxdA8j
— AccuWeather (@accuweather) September 1, 2021
Thankfully, it appears that although much of the wildfire remains uncontained, fire crews have been able to steer the fire away from the South Lake Tahoe community thanks to calmed winds, and officials signalled a cautiously optimistic outlook on the Caldor fire during an operations meeting on September 2.
Stephen Vollmer, a fire behavioral analyst with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection department, said that “with that decrease in winds, we’re seeing a lot decrease in fire activity, which is great for the resources on the ground” – in a report by SFGATE. Whilst a state of emergency has also been declared in neighboring Nevada in anticipation that the fires could spread across the state line, the CalFire department says it expects full containment by September 13.
As the United States is hit from both flanks by the exacerbating and continuing effects that climate change has upon extreme weather events, the urgency of the climate crisis has perhaps never been more tangible. With the devastation of Hurricane Ida to the east and wildfires to the west, one can only hope that America’s pivotal role in the global fight against climate change can be recognised more than ever before.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: A Wildfire At Night. Featured Photo Credit: Pixabay.