The hills of the Wasatch Front have been a refuge for me during the last few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a long day cooped up at home, I’ve savored getting up to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail for a run or heading to Corner Canyon in Draper to sweat it out on my mountain bike.
But these days the tranquility I often find in the outdoors has been tinged with a sense of underlying dread, as dry blades of grass graze my shins and desiccated leaves crunch under my tires. The hills that once gave me a sense of peace now feel like a tinderbox, ready to explode into flames.
Fire season isn’t new to the West, but it’s getting worse. And scientists are clearly pointing the finger at climate change and our ongoing use of fossil fuels.
Global warming increases the frequency and severity of wildfires in a number of ways. It causes hotter and drier temperatures, resulting in smaller snowpacks, longer droughts and drier forests and vegetation. Hotter temperatures also make wildfire season last longer, extending it through the fall and into what we used to think of as early winter.
This has led to an alarming increase in wildfires in the West. According to NASA, a full 61% of the wildfires over the last 60 year period have taken place just since the year 2000. Fires aren’t just becoming more frequent, they’re also getting more destructive. The total area burned in the Western U.S. by wildfires has more than tripled since the 1970s. Before then, there were no recorded “megafires,” fires that burned over 100,000 acres. Now these disasters are occurring with alarming frequency.
We don’t need more scientific reports to show us what the future holds for our region if we don’t act —although there are many — just look at our neighbors in Colorado. Smoke from four major wildfires burning across over 135,000 acres has blanketed large parts of Colorado this week, causing “COVID-type symptoms” according to Gov. Jared Polis. Friends in the Front Rage told me it looked like “an atomic bomb had gone off” as smoke rose over the mountains. The Denver Post put it plainly in a headline on Wednesday: “Climate change hits home in Colorado.”
Things are even worse in California, where more than 300 wildfires are burning across the state. Tens of thousands of people have already had to evacuate their homes as the fires continue to spread. Earlier this week, the National Weather Service issued its first ever warning of a “fire tornado,” something you’d expect in the Book of Revelations, not the local weather report. The smoke from the fires is so bad that it’s now filling our skies here in Utah. A friend who lives in Midway says the air quality reminds him of living in New Delhi.
These apocalyptic visions should shake us out of complacency and spur us to action. Scientists are clear about what we need to do in order to prevent things from getting worse: stop burning the fossil fuels that are causing global warming and making these fires worse. In other words, stop adding fuel to the fire.
We have all the solutions we need to transition our economy away from coal, oil and gas to 100% clean energy, we just lack the political leadership to get it done. Here in Utah, too many of our politicians seem more interested in rewarding the arsonists, giving massive public handouts to fossil fuel companies, rather than combatting the crisis at hand.
Greta Thunberg, the youth climate activist, has said, “I want you to act as if our house is on fire.” Today, that metaphor is a reality for far too many. If we’re going to prevent our communities from falling victim to the more fossil-fueled disasters, we need to follow Greta’s advice. This November, we need to vote as if our house is on fire.
Jamie Henn is the director of Fossil Free Media, the co-founder of 350.org, and a board member of O2 Utah. He lives in Salt Lake City.