Are 'megafires' becoming the new normal?

A CalFire crew from Coulterville takes a break while fighting the River Fire near Salinas, California, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. (Keystone / AP Photo/Nic Coury)

Wildfire season has commenced once more in the State of California, USA, and it's taking every ounce of effort to contain what has been the yearly onslaught of these flames — the “era of megafires”. The latest series of fires in the LNU Lightning Complex (an area in Northwest Bay Area) is also the largest in the state.

A major disaster: It began last Wednesday during a lightning storm. On Sunday, over 14,000 firefighters were battling 585 fires that have now burnt nearly one million acres (400,000 hectares).

Most fires in California are man-made. What is unusual this time is that it began with a tropical storm in the Pacific Ocean which initiated a lightning storm as it made landfall. Though fires caused by lightning are a common occurrence in the area, the unexpectedly high heatwave (with the hottest recorded temperature on earth in Death Valley at 54.4°C) alongside the exceedingly dry conditions concocted the perfect formula for a destructive megafire.

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Why this should concern everyone. This is only one of the numerous fires that have cropped up since the beginning of the year, and might not be the last. As countries decide which path to recovery they’ll take, the links between a warming climate, economic recovery, and the raging fires should not be forgotten.

At the beginning of 2020, all eyes were on the bushfires that spread in New South Wales, Australia — beginning in September of last year, declaring a state of emergency in November, and containing it only in February, thanks to the grace of torrential rains. The world has also witnessed in 2019 what Huffpost calls “the year the world burned” — from the forests in Amazon and Russia to the lands in Indonesia and Lebanon — due in large part to the drastically warming planet.

With the crucial UN Climate Conference of Parties (COP26) postponed to 2021 due to the virus, the climate emergency draws greater concern of adding fuel to the already blazing flames. Studies show that the warming climate these fires: in addition to record-breaking heat waves, droughts come drier and more combustible forest fuel.

One emergency on top of another. All of these seem to be part of a long-forgotten past, as a month later, news agencies would turn their gaze towards the largest global health emergency we’ve seen in decades. Unfortunately, the current fire in California may not be the last this year, and this situation would only be compounded the fight against the coronavirus:

  • In California, worsening air quality and the coronavirus pandemic are straining the healthcare system — creating a “respiratory catastrophe” not only from the virus but the pollution caused by the steadily growing fires. Moreover, these megafires produce massive amounts of CO2 emissions, which in turn cancel out the benefits of initiatives that aim to bring them down.

  • In the Amazon, the forest surrounding the town of Novo Progreso in Brazil had been up in flames in the past week — the same place which started 100,000 forest fires in the previous year. These ranching- and farming-induced flames have yet to see any response from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, despite earlier promises to save the Amazon after being threatened by trade retaliation from the EU.

  • In Indonesia, the coronavirus provided an opportunity for even greater forest clearing, as environmental law enforcement officers were put on hold due to travel restrictions. Though this year’s fire season is forecast to be milder than last year’s, the stakes are higher due to the compounding effects of the toxic haze and Covid-19.

More than one way of putting out the flames. The situation is not as bleak as it sounds. Climate scientists have constantly repeated that the current pandemic is an opportunity to build back better to achieve our climate goals. Apart from the firefighters who have been fighting the fires, there are others who have been continuously putting out the flames in different ways.

  • In what is seemingly a response to the current outbreak of wildfires, Google has expanded its fire-tracking features allow users to view in real-time where the fires are located by using the data from the satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Though its current features are for detection and not forecasting, this is a step closer towards providing ample data for the appropriate emergency response.

  • A similar tool developed by NASA scientists is also being used to track and classify the fires in the Amazon. As forecasts for this year’s fire season have been worrisome, the tool will help bring more clarity and information towards fighting potential flames.


  • Landscape mismanagement is also partly to blame for these fires, as Indigenous ecological knowledge for land protection has been disregarded. Wildfires are necessary to clear out overgrown vegetation that turns into fuel if left out for too long. Now, the state is now fighting fire with fire: instead of suppressing them at all costs, they’re now learning to work with them.

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  • Currently in the spotlight is Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board. An environmental lawyer for over four decades, she has led the charge in achieving what seemed very ambitious in 2006: reducing California’s emissions to its 1990 levels by 2020. She has done it four years ahead of the original goal. She continues the work today of preventing the further warming of the climate as she creatively triumphed over President Trump’s effort to reduce auto emission standards in the U.S.

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Even then, it will take more than these actions to put out the flames completely. As Nichols mentioned in one of her numerous meetings,

She asked everyone not to let “political feasibility constrain our imagination.”

The battle will be long, the fires will be unceasing, but the creative work should also not end.

The Guardian — The climate crisis has already arrived. Just look to California’s abnormal wildfires

San Francisco Chronicle — Crews prepare for long battle as dozens of fires rage across Bay Area, Northern California

Yale Alumni Magazine — The climate in California