California fires and climate change

Wherever you live on this planet, you’ve probably seen images of the orange skies that we witnessed over the San Francisco Bay Area a few days ago. They are caused by the California wildfires which, we have little doubt now, are increasing due to climate change. Today seems better in that the sky is merely grey – I was even excited to see a few spots of sunlight and to hear birds sing again – but the air quality is actually worse today than it was on Wednesday, or “Blade Runner Day,” as it has come to be known.

View of San Fransisco from Treasure Island on Sept 9, 2020, when the California Fires caused the light to appear orange.
San Francisco, viewed from Treasure Island around noon, Sept 9, 2020. Image credit: Cecily W.

The wildfires of 2018 were so devastating that Cal Fire grimly announced that fire season in California is now a year-round event. However, 2020 is proving to be even worse.

Over 3.1 million acres have burned in California since January 1st. That beats our record. [In 2018] it was 1.9 million acres, so we have surpassed that by well over a million acres and we still have 4 more months in the year to go. – Cal Fire assistant deputy director, Daniel Berlant

Take a look at the chart below, showing the largest California fires in terms of acres of land burned. Three things to note:

  1. The five largest fires all date between 2017 and 2020
  2. Three of these five largest fires are current fires, still burning
  3. These records go all the way back to 1932, yet 17 of the top 20 fires occurred since 2000
A list of the top 20 California fires, ranked by Cal Fire by the number of acres burned.

A few days ago I was reviewing the draft of my next post on Trader Joe’s, reading over lines about palm oil sourcing and large carbon footprints and part of me thought: Is this too much? Do people have time for this when they just want to just get on with their normal lives? Well, the fires and orange skies have provided a timely reminder that our normal lives are becoming increasingly inconvenient.

Just as the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for ethical consumerism, so have the wildfires. On a mental level, the stats on wildfires leave little doubt that climate change is real. Then, more tangibly, the discomfort of smoky air and preternatural skies make our sacrifices to reduce our carbon footprints seem so much more pressing.

There’s another aspect to the California wildfires, related to ethical consumerism, that I think we haven’t appreciated yet. The air pollution that Californians are temporarily experiencing is par for the course in many developing nations, worldwide. Air pollution is one of the leading causes of human mortality, being responsible for 1 out of 8 deaths and killing an estimated 7 million people per year. Lifestyles in California and the Global North in general are major contributors to air pollution, whether from fossil fuel use, deforestation, mining, or manufacturing.*

So, yes it does matter whether palm oil sourced by Trader Joe’s comes from deforested land or not. All of it matters, and the pale red dawn on Wednesday provided a very surreal but timely wake up call.

On a personal note, I’ve quit my day job as a research scientist to focus on this. Apologies to my blogger friends for not keeping up over the last couple of years – I hope to make up for it 🙂

*Global economic inequality, another key focus of ethical consumerism, also plays a major role in air pollution. Specifically, domestic air pollution that results from limited cooking and heating options.

14 thoughts on “California fires and climate change

  1. It’s good to hear from you. We don’t have orange skies here over the City of Los Angeles, but during this entire week a blanket of smoke dust has settled over our area, making it unsafe to spend time outdoors. As California Governor Newsom said in his press conference yesterday (September 11):
    “The debate is over in terms of climate change. If you don’t believe that, just come to the state of California.”


    1. Thanks Rosaliene – good to hear from you too!
      I’m going to be taking a trip down there (or east) if this continues for much longer 😉
      Gavin Newsom has a lot on his plate these days, as do we all.


  2. Thank you for this thoughtful, thought provoking blog. have become complacent. Thing is I get worked up, eaten by discouragement and despair. How can I make it better, I ask? I suppose one step at a time. I’m happy being aligned with the likes of you, both my daughters, and others who are trying. I wish you all the best as you go off to work full time to raise awareness. Let me know how I might help you. In the meantime, stay safe. I’m not breathing well today. Our skies are thick and grey. Few are outside. Despite Vancouver being a ways off and spared raging fires this year, the prevailing winds blowing particulate matter our way act as stark reminders of humanity’s shared space. All the best. F


    1. Thank you Frances. I appreciate the offer.
      I was just looking at the air quality in Vancouver – the whole West Coast has awful air today, especially Oregon.
      Keep your windows shut and avoid stressful things (a difficult feat, these days!). I hope you feel better soon. J


  3. I left the Bay Area, seven years ago. I remember the orange skies from living in Sonoma in 2009, and I was there for the Oakland fire of 1991. Enough. We left, largely for family reasons, but the escalating prices and deteriorating climate/water issues figured into the equation. There are certainly things and people I miss, but I wouldn’t go back. There are definately climate wobbles here, in Michigan, but nothing like I’m seeing in my former haunts, Oakland and Sonoma. Like many, I watch from a distance, horrified. My heart goes out to the West Coast. Be safe. Hang on. I just wish I could assure you that things will get better. We live in interesting times.

    Congrats on your decision to be a full time Cassandra.


    1. Thank you! I had to look up Cassandra – I’m forgetting my Classical Studies from school 😉
      The smoke is moving east today, into Nevada, Idaho, and even Montana.
      Perhaps this will give voters some food for thought…


    1. True, what is also devastating is the fact that most of the firefighters are volunteers. California doesn’t have enough people to fight the fires and our current president doesn’t seem to be very considered.


    2. Thanks Elaine! Yet another fire started in Napa this week so the air is unhealthy again around the bay and a few flakes of ash are falling around me as I write this 😦
      Here’s to a rainy October and a fair election in November!


  4. When I visited Israel last year, a wildfire had just reduced a man-made forest to ashes. Our Israeli guide said that the trees – California pine given by Jewish-American donors – were highly inflammable. Just a reflection from a car’s side mirrors can set the leaves on fire. I’m no expert, but perhaps that would also explain the frequency of such fires in CA.


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