Yosemite Valley, the heart of California’s most visited national park, has not been closed due to wildfires since 1990. But on Tuesday afternoon, officials announced the area would be evacuated as the Ferguson Fire engulfed the area.
Firefighters are battling a blaze that started on July 13 and now covers more than 36,000 acres. Just 25 percent is contained as of Wednesday morning. Since the fire began, it has claimed one life and injured six other people.
In addition to Yosemite Valley, Wawona and Mariposa Grove will also be closed to visitors as of Wednesday at noon. A further 13 other campgrounds, lodges, and communities outside the national park are also under evacuation orders.
This is a photo of the Yosemite National Park fire crew putting in a hand line over Pigeon Ridge near El Portal yesterday afternoon. There are over 2,800 personnel from several different states and agencies working on the #FergusonFire that has grown to 27,000 acres. pic.twitter.com/n7mB0rGBDW
— Yosemite National Park (@YosemiteNPS) July 21, 2018
Local news reports say air quality in the area is currently worse than in Beijing, which is known for its harmful smog. Particulate matter levels are way above what the Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) deems safe (35 micrograms), reaching 518 micrograms last week. Levels this high can trigger health impacts that include coughing, difficulty breathing, and aggravated asthma symptoms.
The thick smoke is also rendering iconic views of rock formations El Capitan and Half Dome virtually invisible. The National Park Service has live webcams that show the haze clouding various parts of the park.
But Yosemite is not the only place suffering wildfires. In the U.S. there are currently 60 uncontained large fires — these are fires spanning more than 100 acres of timber or more than 300 acres of grass or sage land. There are a further 11 contained large fires and 14 new ones as of Wednesday, according to the USDA Forest Service. These are predominantly in Colorado, Oregon, and California.
Much of the southwest is currently experiencing multiple heatwaves. And as Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), told ThinkProgress, “Heat is one of the most clear links with climate change.”
And when this heat occurs during dry periods or in semi-arid locations, it means water evaporates more quickly, soils become drier, and “these factors can contribute to the wildfire risks,” Ekwurzel explained.
Studying fires since 1995, Dominique Bachelet, a professor and senior researcher at Oregon State University specializing in climate change and dynamic fire modeling, told ThinkProgress via email, “From day one we have always said there will be more fires in the future.”
Meanwhile in Europe — which has also been suffering a severe heatwave — wildfires near Athens, Greece have killed at least 76 people. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, the fast-moving fires have forced “thousands of tourists and residents to flee in cars and buses, on foot, aboard boats and on makeshift rafts. In desperation, some people plunged into the Aegean waters and tried to swim to safety.”
In a televised address declaring three days of national mourning, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said, “Greece is going through an unspeakable tragedy.”
And in Sweden, fires have been burning inside the Arctic Circle. These are reportedly the worst fires the country has seen in decades. As of July 19, there were more than 40 fires in the country and the government had called for international assistance — firefighting planes and helicopters came from Norway and Italy, areas that have also been battling wildfires.
#NOAA20 satellite captured the devastating fires around #Athens #Greece last night which have already caused significant loss of life and severe damage to the area. Winds over 50 mph contributed to the rapid spread of the deadly fires. pic.twitter.com/otHw6Wzt6L
— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) July 24, 2018
All of these wildfires come as the world is experiencing ongoing record-breaking temperatures and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
As science has shown, climate change is driving more extreme heat and drought — factors that make wildfires more frequent and severe. And while any single event can’t be attributed to climate change alone, the pattern of intense, destructive wildfires that we’re seeing are consistent with what scientists say can be expected from climate change.
There are a lot of factors at play, however, as Bachelet explained. This includes the amount of fuel available for the fire, how thin the forest canopy is (a dense canopy helps keep in moisture), and how temperatures affect plants’ ability to absorb and retain available moisture.
It’s also worth noting, Bachelet said, that expanding urban and agricultural areas is leading to fewer fires overall, globally. But she added that “we live in a privileged country where we have a lot of wildlands still and of course Canada and Russia have huge areas of forests, far from human infrastructure, that will be at risk.”
She also recently helped review a paper which found that “megafires will happen, not if but when,” she said. “Makes sense, it gets hotter, fuels dry up, all it needs is an ignition source and there is often a person ready to provide.”
In Greece, the government suspects arson may have played a role in sparking the fires, but intense heat and dry conditions also help create more intense blazes — dried out shrubs and trees ignite more easily. Combined with those conditions are strong winds that have caused the fires to spread rapidly.
As Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, previously said, “Climate is really running the show in terms of what burns. We should be getting ready for bigger fire years than those familiar to previous generations.”