The West Coast is on fire: Here's why Michiganders should care

Tuesday, September 29, 2020 - 11:31am

Design courtesy of Katherine Lee

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When Americans living on the West Coast woke up on Sept. 9, they were met with a concerning reality. From northern California all the way up through Oregon, the sky was an apocalyptic shade of reddish-orange. The western United States is once again engulfed in flames, as hundreds of wildfires have ravaged forests and disrupted the lives of millions throughout California, Oregon and Washington. While California generally has wildfires every year, this is no ordinary fire season. 

Five of the ten biggest fires in California’s history have happened this year, and thus far this fire season has claimed the lives of almost three dozen Americans, burnt millions of acres of forest and have displaced hundreds of thousands. Smoke from these fires has reached all the way to the East Coast and Europe, and thanks to the blazes, Portland recorded the world’s worst air quality earlier this month, forcing residents to remain inside. So why should Michiganders care about something so far away? Empathy aside, smoke from these fires affects our air quality, and while Michigan has not had large forest fires in its recent history, there have been massive fires before, and there likely will be again.  

Forest fires can start for numerous reasons, but the National Park Service estimates that 85% of forest fires are caused by humans. Specifically, human activities such as leaving campfires unattended, burning debris and arson are some of the most common causes of forest fires. These common causes have led many climate deniers, including President Trump himself, to claim that the record fires throughout the West are the result of bad forest management. In a recent press conference with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and other environment and fire officials, Trump stated that “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch” when confronted by Crowfoot over blaming vegetation management. After Crowfoot dryly commented that he wished the science agreed, Trump responded, saying “I don’t think science knows, actually.” This approach is incredibly dangerous, and will only contribute to even greater ecological destruction. 

The science behind wildfires is rather simple and is just a quick Google search away. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, fires are more likely to occur and grow bigger when there are higher air temperatures and drier soil conditions. Climate change contributes to both of these conditions by warming the earth and drying out the organic matter that burns, which has led to the number of large forest fires in the western United States to double between 1984 and 2015. The California state fire department recently added to their website that “warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire.” So yes, Mr. President, the science does know, actually.

Following the extremely hot and dry summer of 1871, forests burned throughout the Great Lakes region. Scientists believe that the fires in northeast Michigan were sparked by dry lightning strikes or even meteor showers. After the fires had ceased, it was estimated that 2,500 lives were tragically lost and just over 2 million acres of forests were destroyed. Michigan has suffered through catastrophic wildfires in the past and, unfortunately, climate models project that Michigan will continue to get warmer and drier. In 2000, Michigan had just over ten heatwave days per year. A heatwave day is when the temperature is higher than the historical average for that day and region. Just ten years from now, in 2030, that number is projected to increase to 35

By 2050, summer droughts in Michigan are projected to triple, making the drought severity index greater than Texas’ current level. As temperatures increase and droughts become more frequent, Michigan becomes much more susceptible to forest fires similar to those currently devastating the western U.S. If something isn’t done to slow temperature rise, the California, Oregon and Washington fires could be just a preview of what the climate crisis will bring to Michigan and the rest of the Midwest. 

In a time where the planet is, quite literally, on fire, our elected leaders have failed us. While Republicans echo Trump’s talking points that the fires are due to poor forest management, Democrats rightly acknowledge that climate change is the leading cause of the destruction, but refuse to adequately meet the moment. The most egregious case of this is Newsom. He has recently taken to Twitter to declare that “climate change is REAL” while having approved 12 new permits for Chevron Corporation to continue hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Kern County, Calif. — just north of Los Angeles County — bringing the total new fracking events to 360 for the year. Newsom can’t have it both ways. Acting in a manner that fails to account for science — the same science he claims to follow — is a form of climate denial. 

Staring down the monster of the climate crisis is something that many people — myself included as someone studying the environment — find incredibly intimidating. It can be hard to know where to start and often feels hopeless. Joining youth-led organizations such as Sunrise Movement or Climate Action Movement will bring you together with other like-minded young people who share a common goal. A better world is possible, we just have to fight for it.

Alexander Nobel can be reached at anobel@umich.edu.


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