This Bwogger attended an event centered around the effects of our warming climate, specifically as they relate to the wildfires ravaging the west coast.

On Wednesday, September 23, Columbia’s Earth Institute hosted a lecture titled “On Fire: The Escalating Consequences of a Warming Climate,” as part of the creatively named Earth Series. It was delivered by A. Park Williams, Lamont Associate Research Professor in the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. At the very beginning of the lecture, Williams informed the audience that its title would be changed to “An Evidence-Based Explanation for Increasing Western US Wildfire Activity,” to which we all said, “Yeah, sure dude, sounds great.”

As wildfires continue to rage across the West Coast, destroying property, displacing thousands of people, and producing air with such poor quality as to be nearly unbreathable, it is becoming increasingly more important for us to understand the root causes of the issue. 

Before diving into the aforementioned causes, Williams provided some much-needed context about the issue of wildfires. Firstly, wildfires in the Western US have been exponentially worse in the last two years than have been reported in recent memory. Hundreds of fires have been recorded recently, brought on by a cocktail of record-breaking heat and a marked increase in lightning strikes as part of the fallout from Tropical Storm Fausto, which ravaged California in late August.

These wildfires spread at an alarming rate. The Creek Fire grew to 36,000 acres within the first twenty-four hours, consuming one acre every 2.6 seconds. The North Complex Fire consumed 2000 acres in an hour, one acre every two seconds. Over the course of 2020 so far, in California alone, over 2.5 million acres burned.

According to Williams, there are three major elements that need to be in place in order for a wildfire to begin: fuel, aridity, and ignition. Unfortunately, all three of these elements have been increasing. Because of fire management techniques that were imported from Europe during the colonial era, forests in North America are now much denser than had once been. While Native forest management strategies made use of controlled burns, the European approach that is still in use today is to put out all wildfires, regardless of whether they are necessary for ecological homeostasis. The result of this is wildfires now have more fuel packed into a closed area, allowing wildfires to burn hotter and spread more quickly.

In August, temperature records were broken daily in California, the most notable of these being Death Valley at 130 degrees F, one of the highest temperatures ever recorded globally. This extreme level of heat affected the overall aridity in the environment, including that in plant biomass. With lowered levels of moisture, forests were more likely to catch fire. Ignition sources have also increased, not just in the aforementioned increase in lightning strikes, but also in the amount of fires started by human activity.

Williams stressed that he wanted to make it very clear that preventing uncontrollable wildfires was not a political issue. According to him, thinkers on the right tended to solely blame forestry mismanagement which led to thicker forests, while thinkers on the left tended to place the blame on climate change. In reality, it is these two problems taking place in concert that causes fires. And from here on out, if something wasn’t done about both of them, the problem would only get worse

While I couldn’t see the other members of the audience, this was all quite sobering information. Before moving on to the Q&A, the facilitator asked Williams if there were any concrete solutions or a plan of action that could be followed in order to combat this issue. Williams responded diplomatically, saying that, as a researcher, that was beyond the scope of his work. His work would remain credible only if he left those decisions in the hands of policy-makers.

However, based on his presentation, there seemed to be some very clear solutions to the growing issue of uncontrollable wildfires, namely reinstituting Native forestry and land management practices while also making a more general push towards fighting climate change. These sorts of efforts are and would be inherently, regardless of Williams’ statements, political.

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