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California wildfires illustrate the consequences of climate change

A record heat wave is scorching California, where about two dozen wildfires are currently burning. Nearly 15,000 firefighters are battling steep terrain and extremely dry conditions as they struggle to control the raging infernos. On Sunday, temperatures in Los Angeles County reached 121 degrees. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to Leah Stokes of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    California tonight is home to a record-shattering heat wave and about two dozen wildfires currently burning across the state.

    Nearly 15,000 firefighters are battling steep terrain and tinder-dry conditions, as they fight to control the raging infernos. This afternoon, the U.S. Forest Service announced it will temporarily close national forests in the southern and central regions of the state because of the fire risk.

    More than two million acres already scorched this year in California, record-breaking swathes of land burning under record-breaking temperatures. Governor Gavin Newsom last night declared a state of emergency in five counties, as some 20 fire conglomerates smolder across the state.

    The largest fire alone, Fresno's Creek Fire, has burned over 73,000 acres. A caravan of Labor Day weekend campers were surrounded by flames, and forced to flee to a nearby lake.

    Sisters Katelynn and McKenzie Meek escaped the fire's path.

  • Katelynn Meek:

    One minute you're just sitting in that camp, and, the next, you're driving through flames to save everything.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Backpacker Juliana Park documented her drive out of Sierra National Forest, the road lined with flames.

    Rescue teams deployed to Fresno have already airlifted out more than 200 trapped campers.

  • David Hall:

    The crews were absolutely ecstatic when they came off the helicopters.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Colonel David Hall of the California Army National Guard.

  • David Hall:

    All of the individuals that they rescued were greeting the crew members with hugs as they were boarding onto the helicopter, and then, again, after getting off the helicopter, a lot of high-fives.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Several fires still burn completely uncontained, and state excessive heat warnings are in effect until tonight. Officials warn, the worst may be yet to come.

    Temperatures in Los Angeles County reached a record high of 121 degrees yesterday. While it's cooler there today, temperatures inland are expected to top 100.

    For a closer look at what's behind that heat wave and what's fueling these fires, I'm joined by Leah Stokes, she's a professor and researcher on climate, energy and political policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She joins us this holiday from Ontario, Canada.

    Leah Stokes, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start with that warning. Why is it that authorities believe that this fire season could get even worse soon?

  • Leah Stokes:

    Well, unfortunately, climate change is happening right now in California.

    And we have been lengthening the fire season quite considerably as we warm up the planet.

    In California, our fire season is now two-and-a-half months longer than it used to be, which means that people are at risk all the time. And, as you mentioned, we're seeing record heat waves, not just in Los Angeles County, but also in Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo County. And all that heat is really increasing risk for fires.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, you mentioned climate change, of course.

    How do we know that that connection is there? Because we should mention, some of the activities that spark the fires are in fact just related to human behavior. There was one fire started by a gender reveal party, in which someone used a smoke machine that sparked a fire.

    So, explain that connection to us.

  • Leah Stokes:

    Yes.

    It is true, of course, that we make decisions in our daily lives, such as the people who decided to have that gender reveal party. But it becomes so much more risky to actually have that spark light a fire under climate change.

    So, we know, because of research from scientists, that we have 500 percent more risk for wildfires during this climate changed world than we would have before. And that's because it's really hot and dry, because we have had droughts.

    And, of course, that drought, which is caused by climate change, has led to a lot of vegetation dying, meaning there's a lot of brush lying around that can easily light up. And a little spark from a gender reveal party or whatever it is can end up being a massive inferno very quickly.

    So, of course, people need to be careful and be held accountable when they light fires. But the fact is, climate change is the real culprit behind what we're seeing right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should mention, too, California's fire record goes back to 1932, but the 10 biggest fires on record there have all happened after 2000.

    Should we expect that trend to continue?

  • Leah Stokes:

    Unfortunately, we should.

    I have only lived in California for five years, and I have already been evacuated from my home for weeks on end. And what scientists are telling us is that we are entering a period of mega-fires, where the scale of burning is just beyond what we have seen before.

    So, as you mentioned, we're seeing really large fires. And there isn't any reason to believe that that will stop, because we are not taking the climate crisis seriously, and we are not reducing fossil fuel emissions around the world.

    So, California really is the canary in the coal mine here, and we need to be waking up. And just as the bird was dying from coal, we too are dying from burning coal, oil and fossil gas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should mention also we are mid-fire season now.

    Are there steps that residents or local authorities and state authorities can be taking to mitigate damage for the rest of the season and prepare for next year?

  • Leah Stokes:

    Absolutely.

    Our firefighters and our cities are doing the best that they can. They do all kinds of things like suggest that residents make small retrofits to their home that can dramatically reduce fire risk. They do things like create fuel breaks, which sometimes are controversial, for good reason.

    So, people are trying. But the really big solution here is taking on the climate crisis. And that means that we need new leadership, particularly in Washington. We need somebody who actually believes that climate change is real.

    And, unfortunately, we don't have that right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Leah Stokes from the University of California, Santa Barbara, joining us tonight.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  • Leah Stokes:

    Thanks for having me on.

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