Unprecedented Wildfires Turn California Skies Orange

The 2020 wildfire season on the West Coast is the most expansive on record.
September 9, 2020, 5:38pm
​Bay Area on September 9, 2020. Image: Bay Area Air Quality
Bay Area on September 9, 2020. Image: Bay Area Air Quality

Millions of Californians woke up to an eerie scene on Wednesday, as haze from unprecedented wildfires on the West Coast turned the skies shades of orange and red. Smoke settled over heavily populated areas such as the Bay Area, revealing the dire consequences of what is shaping up to be the state’s biggest wildfire season on record. 

While it is normal for wildfires to break out on the West Coast, climate change is rapidly exacerbating the problem. The 2020 fire season is an awful inflection point in this trend: Flames have consumed about 20 times more land at this point than wildfires at the same date in 2019, according to the New York Times

Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate across California, Oregon, and Washington, and eight people have died as a result of the fires, according to NBC News. Millions more are exposed to hazardous air conditions, which includes ash “snow” in several locations.

The brutal 2020 season prompted California Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency in August. The situation has escalated since then as the state endures a record-breaking heatwave this week. On Saturday, Los Angeles County logged its highest temperature ever, a sweltering 121°F.

This year’s catastrophic wildfires, which will likely rage on for several weeks until the rainy season, demonstrate the frightening—but predictable—consequences of the climate crises. 

It is tempting to lay the blame at the feet of individuals, such as the couple that recently sparked a devastating fire during a gender-reveal party for their baby. Ultimately, though, climate change is a result of broader societal behaviors. Likewise, any future respite from these disasters will require major changes from us all.

“Of course, people need to be careful and be held accountable when they light fires,” Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told NPR. “But the fact is, climate change is the real culprit behind what we're seeing right now.”