The deadly wildfires sweeping across the west coast of the United States show that the climate change debate is “over,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said.
“Come to the state of California. See it with your own eyes, ”he told reporters from a charred mountainside.
Fires have been raging in California, Oregon and Washington for three weeks.
Wind-fanned amid record heat, the fires have burned millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 25 people.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown said on Friday dozens of people were missing in her state alone.
The fires have burned a total of 4.5 million acres – an area larger than Connecticut and slightly smaller than Wales – in recent weeks, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
What did Newsom say?
The governor, a Democrat, spoke on Friday as he inspected the fire damage at the northern compound near Oroville in northern California.
“The debate is over on climate change,” Newsom told reporters. “It’s a hell of a climate emergency. It’s real and it’s happening. ”
He acknowledged the failures of forest management over the past decades, but added: “It’s a point, but it’s not the problem. ”
Highlighting states’ efforts to tackle climate change, he said record heat waves and unprecedented fires were the kinds of problems scientists had long anticipated.
The skeptical President Donald Trump has pointed out that poor firefighting measures are the main cause of the latest fires.
“You have to clean up your forests – there are many, many years of broken leaves and trees and they are… so flammable,” he said at a rally last month.
The fire at the north complex, which has been burning since August 18, is one of the deadliest in history. Ten bodies have been found so far and 16 others are missing.
California has seen at least 20 deaths in total from the fires since August 15. Tens of thousands of people are under evacuation orders as 14,800 firefighters continue to fight 28 major fires in the state.
While natural factors such as high winds have contributed to the spread of these massive fires, the underlying warming of the climate due to human activities makes these conflagrations larger and more explosive.
Nine of the ten warmest years on record in the world have occurred since 2005, and the UN warned this week that the five years from 2016 to this year will quite possibly be the hottest time on record. Oregon and California have warmed by more than 1 ° C since 1900.
The sustained heat saw six of the 20 biggest fires on record in California this year. In Oregon, the wave of fires burned nearly twice the average annual losses over the past week.
In California, a prolonged drought over the past decade has killed millions of trees, turning them into powerful fuel for fires. Mountain areas that are normally cooler and wetter have dried out faster in summer, adding to the potential fuel load.
Climate scientists had predicted that wildfires in the West would increase in size, scale and impact – but their predictions are coming to fruition faster than expected.
- A very simple guide to climate change
What’s going on beyond California?
In Oregon, where firefighters are battling 16 large fires, 40,000 people are on mandatory evacuation orders.
The fires have killed four people, but officials warn the death could be much higher.
Governor Kate Brown on Friday pleaded with residents to stay out of fire zones despite reports of looting.
“Let me assure you that we have the Oregon National Guard and Oregon State Police monitoring the situation and preventing the looting,” she said.
Beatriz Gomez Bolanos, 41, told Reuters news agency her family was afraid to seek safety due to fires burning on both sides of their car. She told her four children to close their eyes as they escaped.
“It’s all gone. We have to start from scratch, but we are alive, ”she told the news agency.
At least one blaze in Oregon – the Almeda blaze, one of the state’s most destructive – is considered suspected arson.
Smoke pollution from wildfires has left Oregon’s largest city, Portland, with the worst air quality in the world, followed by San Francisco and Seattle, according to IQAir.com.
In Washington state, firefighters tackle 15 large fires. A one-year-old boy died earlier this week as his family tried to escape a fire. Her parents remain in critical condition.
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