Wildfires scorch the West Coast

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Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash

California has been experiencing a record-setting fire season with over 25 major fires and two extended attack wildfires. Washington and Oregon are also ablaze – 1 million acres have burned in Washington and 807,000 acres in Oregon. In California, 3.3 million acres have burned. At least 33 people have died and 22 are missing

This year, there have been a total of 7,900 wildfires in California alone. More than 17,000 firefighters have been working ceaselessly in an attempt to curb these wildfires. Some of these fires are at 98 percent containment. However, the continuing presence of smoke has created extremely dry conditions, which increase the likelihood of additional wildfires.

Though a cold front has recently made an appearance on the burning West Coast and has led to decreased temperature, this front nonetheless increases the likelihood of the spread of wildfires because it is accompanied by strong gusts of air. 

Furthermore, this cold front and its accompanying wind gusts have led to the spread of smoke across the country and beyond even our borders, with data collected by the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, suggesting that the smoke is going to make an appearance in parts of Northern Europe. 

The dangers of the smoke are made all the more clear during the pandemic. Lung specialists advise residents to wear N95 masks when outside and to stay indoors as much possible to avoid exacerbating their respiratory systems. People who have tested positive for COVID-19 are especially vulnerable to poor atmospheric conditions, as are children, people with pre-existing conditions such as heart and lung disease and elderly individuals. Furthermore, the damage that wildfire smoke wreaks over the respiratory system makes people more likely to contract lung infections, including those caused by COVID-19. 

Hundreds of thousands of homes and other structures have been destroyed. This has caused an enormous amount of displacement. In August, when the intensity of the fire-season reached its peak, roughly 10 percent of Oregon’s population was under some kind of evacuation alert.

Residents are having a hard time coping with the combined effects of the wildfires and the pandemic. In California, many still remember the devastating wildfire season of 2018 – this wildfire season is reopening wounds for residents, for their properties and livelihoods are once again being violently uprooted. 

Additionally, the demands of social distancing imposed by the pandemic have made the possibility of providing direct relief to people in need much more difficult. It has not been possible, for example, for many counties to set up traditional evacuation centers. Instead, people have been directed to “Temporary Evacuation Points,” where they must remain in their cars until a relief worker is able to help them. 

In between dealing with the pandemic and the wildfire season, government resources have been spread incredibly thin. Thus, mutual aid groups have become crucial to relief efforts in all three states. In Portland, restaurants, kitchens and other groups are providing food and other forms of wildfire relief to firefighters and people affected by the fire. Information regarding specific groups that are helping people in Portland can be found on Eater

What, precisely, is the difference between this fire season and other fire seasons? Experts say that this fire season, and other future fire seasons, are getting longer and longer. On average, fire seasons start earlier and last 75 days more than usual. Therefore, it may be that this fire season will last until November of this year. 

Daniel Berlant, a public information officer for CalFire, said, “It’s not that we’re seeing more fire, it’s that the fires are able to burn at a bigger size with more destruction.”

Though 95 percent of wildfires are started because of human recreational activities, many of the wildfires and their increased intensity are a direct result of climate change. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence to support the claim that wildfire seasons are worse, and will continue to get worse, because of climate change, President Donald Trump refuses to acknowledge the evidence. 

In a briefing on wildfires in McClellan Park, California, Sept. 14, Trump argued with Wade Crowfoot, the Californian Secretary for Natural Resources. Crowfoot insisted that climate change was in fact behind the exacerbated wildfire season. 

Trump stated that he didn’t think that “science knows” whether or not climate change has contributed to the fire season, and that, “it’ll start getting cooler.” Trump has repeatedly insisted that poor vegetation management is to blame for this wildfire season. As proof, Trump cites the forests of Europe, where less wildfires are seen. But in fact, this lack of wildfires is attributable to the difference in climate in Europe, and not at all to vegetation management. 

Trump’s comments have brought him criticism from the scientific and political communities. On Sept. 14, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden denounced Trump as a “climate arsonist” who endangered Americans by repeatedly denying climate change. 

Misinformation from fringe conspiracy groups has exacerbated the strain on governmental resources in coping with the fire season and the pandemic. Supporters of Donald Trump have been alleging online that Antifa – allegedly a left-wing anti-fascist political movement support by autonomous groups – have been starting the wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington. Such was the extent of the misinformation in Portland, for example, that the FBI division in Portland posted an official statement on Twitter debunking these contentious claims. 

Even officials seem to have bought into false claims involving arson, despite the fact that police departments take care to investigate each wildfire to determine that arson is not in fact the cause of them. For example, Sheriff’s deputy Mark Nikolai of Clackamas County, Oregon – who is now suspended from duty and is under investigation –was recorded urging residents to come forward and report any members of Antifa who were behind the wildfires. 

Facebook has pledged to remove false claims that Antifa is behind the setting of these wildfires, but misinformation has already had a marked effect on the capacity of local governments to cope with the crisis. 

For instance, Oregon state departments have had to work overtime to clear up these false claims, instead of working to contain the threat of the wildfires. Furthermore, the ability for investigative journalists to report on the wildfires has been extremely limited as many journalists have been threatened by residents who believe that the journalists themselves are Antifa arsons. 

To make matters worse, the possibility of looting has become a widespread problem during this wildfire season. Though this is only a rumor, many Oregon residents who have become paranoid about the possibility of their homes being ransacked by vandals have taken to staying at home and risking their lives to protect their possessions from looters. 

Some have also illegally stopped other residents who are trying to evacuate the area, using the threat of gun violence to deter those trying to leave. Some individuals believe that instituting these checkpoints and stopping unrecognized vehicles will protect their property.

These fears of looting and arson are unfounded, however. Though there has been a 400 percent increase in the rate of 911 calls made, nearly all have failed to result in evidence of either crime being committed. 

Agatha Gutierrez

Angelica Gutierrez is the page editor for Lifestyle on The Hilltop Monitor. She is a sophomore majoring in Oxbridge: History of Ideas.

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