Rising temperatures, raging fires, and fuming tempers

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I’m a native Californian whose childhood international travels took me to some of the farthest corners of the world. My dad has been an environmentalist and geological researcher most of his life. That career choice rubbed off on me and now I’m the studying environmental science myself. As a freshman, I don’t have too much academic experience under my belt yet, but I definitely know more than your average young adult, given how much exposure to the sciences I had growing up.

By now the headlines about California’s wildfires have gone national. I recently had a heated argument (no pun intended!) with an out-of-state student who totally downplayed the severity of the escalating state wildfires. His argument was based on the idea that wildfires actually help the ecosystem in many ways, which I’ve heard before from lots of sources, including my own dad. As an upperclassman, he had the advantage of being able to cite published papers and authors, whereas I could really only refer to my dad. I didn’t sound very convincing. I eventually conceded to him even though I still disagreed.

Am I wrong about how damaging the wildfires are?

This is likely the first of many controversial topics you’ll have a chance to debate openly with others during your collegiate experience. Don’t take these encounters for granted, because they’re often very revealing about our character and true nature.

The answer to your question is nuanced and subject to a wide range of interpretations across the academic and political spectrum. Wildfires are a perfectly natural and necessary phenomenon, especially in certain ecosystems. The political and scholarly deliberations can be difficult to unwrap through sensationalized media that’s more prone to use hyperbole and fearmongering than reasoned dialog. You have at one end of the spectrum a select few climate change deniers who have made it their explicit purpose to sow deceit and misinformation into what’s otherwise considered fact by almost everyone else.

From your description, this upperclassman sounds like he’s still on the right side of science, but now debates the extent to which humans are impacting singular wildfire events versus the longitudinal frequency and pattern of the wildfire events. To my earlier point and what you’ve already admitted, wildfires are expected to happen in the natural environment. And as a native Californian, you’re probably already aware of the state’s extensive history of wildfires. In other words, he wasn’t totally off base for advocating his basic premise but–like other experts who advocate for less preventative intervention–the crux of their argument falls apart because of how drastically things are now changing.

The most recently contained wildfire, the Thomas Fire, has become the new largest fire on record. The global scientific community is beginning to reach the consensus that California’s wildfires are a part of a larger pattern in extreme weather events. These escalating and unnaturally severe weather events threaten both human civilization and ecological stability around the world. Scientists even more recently published a report pinpointing the changing jet stream as another major contributing factor. While the link between climate change and extreme weather remains contested, the evidence in its favor continues to grow at a terrifying pace.

Here in the US, places like California have to come to terms with the radically increasing economic cost of these worsening and highly destructive wildfires. With data projecting no end in sight, the state and its millions of affected residents will have to adapt or endure the possible consequences (eg., increasing insurance premiums, home loss, smoke inhalation, etc.). Scientists at UCSF already admit that more research is required into the long-term health effects of wildfire smoke inhalation, which makes wildfire smoke impact evaluations all the more important for professionals in the field.

The list of impacts and state-wide activities related to wildfires is obviously very extensive, which makes the topic all the more complex and difficult to discuss intelligently. Keep these talking points in mind the next time you run into another skeptic or contrarian. Demonstrating a true understanding of nuance and multiple perspectives is much more important than spouting the names of published authors.

“A wise man did not pour wildfire on a brazier. Instead he poured a fresh cup of wine.” — George R. R. Martin

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