Wildfires in the West Are Climate Change Lessons for Everyone

The wildfires burning throughout the West, with terrible but photogenic consequences, come with a reminder that it's only going to get worse unless massive changes are made right here in the United States.

September 13, 2020, 11:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


The Woolsey Fire burned 96,949 acres of Southern California in November 2018. | Max Dunlap / Shutterstock

[Updated September 14, 2020 and September 16, 2020 with several new articles in the concluding list below.]

Even without a pandemic hovering in the background like muzak on loop, the consequences of fire season seem to get worse every year in the West. The fires get bigger, more destructive, and deadlier. The smoke chokes cities for more days every year. Rain falls less frequently. The hottest days just get hotter. I'm a native Californian, so I'm living through these surreal and scary days of smoke and ash with a sense of familiar dread, once again checking with friends and family who have evacuated from fires and nervously refreshing real-time fire incident reports and air quality dataBroken records lose their novelty when they barely last a year. 

Though they seemed like a new level of climate change revealed, the images emerging in the past week of orange skies over the Bay Area, residents fleeing cities in Oregon, and campers trapped by Alpine lakes are just the latest in a steady stream of apocalyptic images from the American West. Remember the charred remains of the Wine Country and Butte County. Remember the images of golfers teeing it up in Oregon while forests burned in the background. Remember the pre-dawn commute on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles that resembled something from Hollywood's worst nightmares. Remember the dam that almost burst on the rare occasion of a steady dose of rain. The skies turned orange in Australia less than a year ago. The consequences of climate change are spreading, and its roots are digging deeper and deeper into the planet. But none of this is new. Novelty is now reality.

California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado are currently bearing the brunt of the entire country's neglect of the environment. Soon again it will be the Atlantic Coast’s, or the Gulf Coast's, turn to pay this terrible price for a century's worth of modern convenience. We should all see each other in these moments of reckoning. Scientists know why these fires are burning so much bigger and destroying so many more lives every year. We the public have the power to do something about it.

If it feels like there is no escape, remember that the choices Americans make about where and how they live, where and how they develop new places for living and working, and how they get to and from, are now the main causes of the climate crisis. We know what we have to do to correct the path we are on, but we are still headed the wrong direction

Recent articles on the causes and consequences of climate change and wildfire follow.

James Brasuell

James Brasuell is a writer and editor, producing web, print, and video content on the subjects of planning, urbanism, and mobility. James has managed all editorial content and direction for Planetizen since 2014 and was promoted to editorial director in 2021.

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