This past week wildfires torched 28,000 acres in California, at one point threatening 4,000 homes in Ventura County before fire crews were able to begin to rein them in. Wood smoke contains particulate matter and toxins, posing greatest danger to people with respiratory issues and heart disease. The elderly as well as children, whose lungs are still developing, are also especially vulnerable when wildfires break out, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wildfires displace families from their homes. Excessive fires alter ecosystems, destabilizing the balance of flora and fauna. And the cost of fighting increasing fires, just like the cost of recovery from extreme storms, sucks up resources that could go to meet other public needs.
To date this year there have been roughly 200 more wildfires than average in California, a state that typically experiences fire threat in the fall, after the dry summer season. As Ventura County fire spokesman Tom Kruschke remarked, “This is a very, very strange weather pattern for this time of year.” A number of reports have linked climate change to more frequent wildfires, and predict more fires, longer wildfire seasons, and vast increases in the numbers of acres burned.
The recent California wildfires are one more signal that the time to act on climate change is now. To protect our health, we must lean into the two challenges before us: prepare, putting systems in place to deal with increased wildfire threat and the many other effects of current climate change; and prevent, acting quickly, effectively, and significantly to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the problem. We have the capacity to take climate action and thereby protect human health. Do we have the will?