First there was Sweden. Then Greece. California.
It’s the summer of heat and wildfires, and extremely weird, violent ones at that.
Wildfires are angrily raging throughout the world, in both places that have become synonymous with them and regions that have never seen a fire rip through before and where people can’t fathom how to fight the flames tearing through acres of land.
The fires are capitalizing on a triple threat of searing heat, jet streams that are tamping down on pressure, and a lack of rain that have made landscapes so dry they transform into flames almost instantaneously. The jet stream, in particular, is acting up, looping toward the pools with high pressure “ridges” but plummeting around the equator with low pressure troughs. That, combined with the unprecedented heat brought by climate change, make for prime wildfire weather.
But how do we know it’s climate change? On Friday, the World Weather Attribution Project released a damning report that argued the sizzling heat and wildfires burning the planet are anthropogenic—human caused, no doubt about it. The pressure systems have a hand, sure, but the heat waves in Europe, a continent that has rarely seen temperatures climb into the hundreds, are about to become a norm.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Climate change is here, and we are living in its burning embers.
What makes each of this summer's fiery wildfires especially noteworthy is their extremity, the almost otherworldliness of their devastation. In Sweden and neighboring Finland and Norway—regions within the Arctic Circle whose summers are normally characterized by temperate reprieves from bitter winters, with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees and marked by pleasant, idyllic pressure and moisture levels—the heat wave has been so devastating that emergency officials don’t know how to handle the fires cropping up, the people passing out from dehydration, the sheer strength of the heat on withering crops. Earlier this month, Swedish authorities were so overwhelmed by a streak of 60 wildfires that they pled for foreign aid. In the two months leading to the Arctic circle wildfires—a phrase that seems oxymoronic and dystopian in itself—temperatures had regularly flirted with the 90s, and rain was sparse.
That same pounding heat and parching dryness was seen in Greece's killer firewaves last week and now in California. The latter has become synonymous with wildfires but the former had almost rarely dealt with the phenomenon until last week, when wildfires tore through towns and killed over 80 people, potentially caused by arson and worsened by the heat.
Some of that has to do with the fact that both California and Greece are facing remarkably similar climates, despite being half a world apart.
"Mediterranean pine forests and shrublands are naturally prone to the occurrence of occasional wildfires and are highly flammable during the dry and hot summer months," Niels Andela, a NASA research scientist with the University of Maryland's Earth Science Interdisciplinary Center, told The Daily Beast. "The combination of high fuel loads, temperatures, and strong winds have made these fires worse."
What would have been a terrible wildfire has transformed into fireballs that readily wipe out humans in their path. And while climate change’s role in the violent fires is not disputed in scientific circles, one other worrisome culprit is becoming increasingly problematic: a lack of planning.
"The Mediterranean is on a drying and warming trend making longer fire seasons and more intense fire weather," said David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology in Australia's University of Tasmania. "But the social and physical geographic factors are critical too."
Bowman, whose native Australia is experiencing winter right now due to its southern hemisphere location but has become a wildfire target in recent years, said that climate change has been known to be coming for years now. But urban planners have not taken environmental catastrophe into account. Saving lives in the face of climate change is possible, and city planners could be creating easily accessible solutions for wildfires, particularly in the rural areas where wildfires spread rapidly.
But Bowman pointed to the Greek wildfires as a cautionary tale not only because of their environmental position—one that reflects many who have moved as a result of urban sprawl—but also because of their poor planning methods. "Basically there is a sweet spot where you have enough brush fuels to carry fire into urban areas and the housing is mixed in with combustible trees and ground fire—this is actually a sort of wildfire fuel," he explained. "Once in urban areas there is house-to-house ignitions. It is quite possible for fires to burn through suburbs."
In fact, "many towns and cities are at risk globally and most people have no idea this is the case," Bowman warned. “The fires killed people because they had no plan and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is possible to reduce loss of life but this is a big project involving community education, changing landscape vulnerability, creating fire safe places, and more.”
In other words, it’s quite likely to get worse before it gets better, primarily because city codes, their implementation, and resulting architecture are slow processes.
Which makes urban planning strategies that much more important in our now-present climate change world. "The solution is thoughtful landscape design and building/retrofitting houses to resist fire, building community capacity to manage fire as well as firefighting capacity," Bowman emphasized.
That’s because even if it’s already late, it’s not too late, and researchers suggest we have to act before it’s even more dire. From a health standpoint, the effects of the wildfires live on for months—perhaps years. "In this particular instance [Greece], most people likely died because of direct contact with the fire, since one of the several fires was occurring in a densely populated area," Andela said. "However, poor air quality in surrounding urban areas may also take its toll." That leads to issues like asthma, lung disease, and cancers that lie dormant for years before appearing in its often terminal form. That’s all besides the coughing and breathing issues that frequently affect survivors.
What's especially shocking about the Greek wildfires is their deadliness. A lack of urban planning certainly played a role, but there was also the fact that the severity of the drought and heat that ignited the fire were uniquely powerful and extreme enough to spread rapidly.
"One of the [Greek] fires occurred in a densely populated area and people were not prepared for its sudden rapid spread in response to high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds," he explained. The areas that were hardest hit were lush with vegetation like grass and bushes, which made them especially susceptible to the wrath of wildfires because of their tinder-like state. And without skyscrapers or hills to help buffer their path, these wildfires became frightening tornados.
“Fire scientists and managers are talking about fire smart urban design but we are so far behind even in notoriously fire prone places like Australia and the western United States,” Bowman said. “We have a pretty good idea what needs doing but the ability to do this on scale remains elusive.” That’s not only because city governments are often hesitant to instill these costs but also because the science and understanding of how to build a fireproof community and housing—particularly in areas that experience a lot of drought and are don’t get much, if any, precipitation or are expected to experience huge reductions in water—simply hasn’t happened.
And breathing in air that is dense with smoke and the charred remains of plants and housing is far from ideal for normal breathing. “Think of all the stuff in houses that is toxic when burned,” Bowman said. The initial death count often includes people who died from smoke inhalation or burned, but Bowman said death tolls can continue to climb in the days after a wildfire. “Typically, there are a few more casualties after a fire,” Bowman said.
Beyond the physical, there is the long lasting “psychosocial trauma” that victims have to deal with, Bowman said: Thinking home was a safe sanctuary, realizing that a fire was ripping through home, causing death and destruction in seconds. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common, as is exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and more. Surviving a fire physically is only the first step towards recovery; the lingering health and mental effects are debilitating enough to be fatal in their own right.
But that mental and physical hardship is one that many more people will be facing in the months, years, and decades to come, as climate change makes its presence known. The wildfires might seem like they are a glimpse of our future, a warning of the pain that can be inflicted by nature when humans lose control of their environment, but the truth is that their burning isn't a warning any more of what may come. No, the wildfires and broiling heat, the parched droughts and bizarrely violent twists in climate are the new normal of what extreme weather we can now expect now and beyond. This is the new normal.
“We can reduce our exposure to these events but this will require investment in preventative fire management and social change,” Bowman said. “It is not all about more fire bombers.”