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Home / Tips and Tricks / 2020 fires in California, Oregon and beyond: All we know, how to help

2020 fires in California, Oregon and beyond: All we know, how to help

An unsurpassed fire season is wreaking havoc in the western United States, with forest fires tearing across several states and air quality declining. At least 19 people have been killed, dozens more are missing and more than 3,000 homes have been destroyed since the season began. By Friday in Oregon, half a million people were on evacuation orders as two fires threatened to merge and continue swiftly toward the Salem and Portland suburbs. Oregon fires have burned more than 1 million acres, said state Gov. Kate Brown.

California’s forest fires, which are fueled by extreme flames in August and September, have already burned more acres than ever before on record. As of Thursday, flames are burning in at least ten western states, according to the incident incident information system.

The images and stories that come out of the US West are eerily reminiscent of those that Australians experienced in early 2020.

In January, large strings of Australia burned. The sky turned orange and smoke covered the country̵

7;s largest cities. Entire cities were leveled out. Now, across the Pacific, this gloomy story is repeated. San Francisco has turned red and orange and the smoke is drying out the sun.

There are glimpses of hope, like one freak blizzard slowed growth in Colorado. But as a sign of things to come, the fire season will not yet reach its peak, and more of the state of Washington burned during a 24-hour period this week than during 12 of the last 18 fire periods.

Here’s what we know about the ongoing fires and how you can help from the US or far away.

If you just want to find out where you can donate or how you can help yourself, you can jump to the bottom of the page by clicking here

What caused the fires?

Fires can start in different ways. Human activity, such as careless smoking a cigarette, poorly maintained infrastructure or even sex reveals parties with pyrotechnics can spark fires. Some of the fires that are currently burning over California are the result of accidental ignition.

Fires can also be deliberately lit, even if arson has not been linked to the fire in question. Rumors have spread through social media that some of the fires may have been intentionally triggered by either right-wing or left-wing activists, which has led some officials to use their own social media campaigns to dispel the myths.

Nature also conspires to start fires, with lightning strikes being a major problem. In California, intense thunderstorms started a number of major fires in August. Prolonged periods of drought and poor management of national forests can also play a role in helping these fires to start. As the fire season gets longer, the window to perform critical risk reductions has shrunk, giving fires a chance to really take hold. The risk of fires burning across the western United States was well known to researchers, and regardless of origin, fires are driven by a dizzying number of factors.

Lack of rain and low soil moisture can help small fires grow in size, and in combination with the high temperatures and strong winds, small fires can quickly become huge infernos. All of this feels extremely similar to anyone familiar with the bushfire that Australia encountered in January. Environmental factors contributed significantly to the unprecedented fire season during and are playing out again in the United States – partly driven by the negative effects of climate change.

What is the connection to climate change?

Forest fires are not started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The Climate Council, an independent, socially funded climate organization, proposes that fire conditions are now more dangerous than before, with longer seasonal fires, droughts, drier fuels and soil and record heat in Australia. The link between fires and climate change has become a political football, but experts agree that climate change explains the unsurpassed nature of the current crisis.

Forest fires are getting worse in the United States. According to data from the program Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity, there are on average more forest fires and they burn more land every year. A study published in July 2019 concluded that “human-caused warming has already significantly increased volcanic activity in California … and is likely to continue to do so in the coming decades.”

There is no doubt that 2020 will be one of the hottest years recorded for the planet, and a 75% chance that it will be the hottest ever, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Increased temperatures mean that fires can burn more intensively and also cause forests to dry out and burn more easily. Warming is unequivocally caused by climate change.

On September 9, California Gov. Govin Newsom tweeted a short video from Bloomberg’s QuickTake in which he said “climate change has profoundly affected the reality we are currently experiencing.”

There is also a terrifying feedback loop that occurs when large strands of land burn, a fact that the world scrawled with during the Amazon fires of 2019 and the Australian bushfires 2020. Huge fires emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The gas, which makes up only a small proportion of the total gases in the atmosphere, is exceptionally good for capturing heat.

Andrew Sullivan, Fire Research Leader for CSIRO, an Australian research agency, investigated how technology could help predict and fight fires. In September, he told CNET that “climate change exposes more areas to the likelihood of fire.”

Which areas are affected?

Fires are burning across the western United States, but the largest fires are over California and Oregon.

More than 3.5 million acres have burned in California, with over 2,500 more fires than at the same time in 2019. One of the largest fires during the Australian season, Mount Gospers, burned through approximately 2.2 million acres. “Unsurpassed” is the word again used by officials, weather services and the media to describe the size and degree of difficulty. Dust and ash from the fires has turned the orange sky over California.

The Blazes in Oregon have become increasingly destructive, driven by strong winds. “I want to be in advance by saying that we expect to see a lot of loss, both in structures and human life,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said during a briefing Tuesday. “This could be the biggest loss of human life and property due to wildfires in our state’s history.”

Washington has also experienced significant fires, with nearly 350,000 acres burned over a 24-hour period in early September. Two major fires broke out on September 8, and the government Jay Inslee said that “more acres burned … than during 12 of the last 18 full fire seasons in the state of Washington.”

The New York Times has an informative fire map that can help you track where the fire is burning.

Who is fighting the fires?

In California, the State Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, is leading the effort to combat wilderness firefighting, but actually repelling the flames on the ground is a massive collaboration that also involves local, county, and federal resources. Teams from the National Forest Service and other agencies’ “hotshot” teams travel from as far as New Mexico to fight ground fires.

California also uses a controversial “detention camp” program that trains prisoners to fight fires. Prisoners can earn time on their sentences and work to continue in a career and rescue services when they are released. But the program has been criticized for the dangerous work that comes with meager pay.

Many conservation camps have been abandoned in the wildfire during this record season due to outbreaks of coronavirus. But as of Thursday, prison crews were out on the line fighting the out-of-control Creek Fire near Fresno.

Do I need to wear a mask?

Smoke and ash from fires can irritate the airways and make it harder to breathe. During Australia’s busfire season, the number of calls to ambulance services increased sharply and researchers have shown that there can be a significant health burden for those exposed to smoke. Breathing problems cause more people to go to hospitals in the United States during a typical wildfire season.

Fine particles in the air can cause damage to the lungs and increase inflammation in the short term. What is less certain is the long-term effects of exposure to smoke.

We have become closely acquainted with use of masks in the last six months due to the coronavirus pandemic, but you may be wondering if you need to use one to protect against smoke from fires. The short answer is: You should probably do it, but filtering smoke and ash from the air requires an N95 or P100 mask – and the public health service suggests that these should be reserved for healthcare professionals. They can not completely filter out some of the gases present in running smoke.

Fabric masks and other coatings that we have become familiar with during the pandemic are not effective in protecting against smoke. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says staying indoors and limiting your time outdoors is “the most effective way” to protect yourself during a wildfire accident.

You can find current air quality data from AirNow for your zip code, city or state.

How you can help

  • America Red Cross disaster relief and recovery fund helps support evacuation centers and recovery programs for affected communities.
  • GlobalGiving has opened a Wildfire Relief Fund that will provide relief and support to those affected by the fires. You can donate on their website.
  • Direct relief has helped make efforts to get particulate filter masks over California communities, much like it did during the Australian bushfire season. You can donate to their efforts, which support disaster relief around the world, here.
  • California Community Foundation takes donations to support immediate disaster relief and long-term recovery efforts. You can find the donation link here.
  • An all-cause GoFundMe has been created to distribute funds to various verified GoFundMe campaigns.
  • The Salvation Army has a donation page for the fires to help on the ground by providing food, water and support.
  • The California Fire Foundation provides emotional and financial support to families of fallen firefighters, firefighters and the communities they protect. You can donate here.
  • The Los Angeles County Fire Department Foundation has a donation page to “support our paramedics, firefighters, lifeguards and other staff along with important community programs.”
  • The (City of) Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation “actively raises money for toolboxes for brush removal of wilderness and other important safety equipment for men and women in LAFD.”
  • United Way Bay Area has set up an aid fund for wildfires to provide immediate and long-term recovery support.
  • VEMAnet, the Volunteers for the Emergency Management of Animals Network, provides assistance to pet owners in urgent times. You can request or provide assistance by going to its website.
  • There are a number of great resources for mental health for those in need. Mental Health America has compiled a comprehensive list of telephone numbers and aids. Americans can call Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 and the Disaster Relief Line at 1-800-985-5990.

Other things you can do

  • Increase awareness! You can tweet and share and post this story – and dozens of others – all over the web. More eyeballs means more help for those who need it.
  • Run your online searches Ecosia, which uses profits to plant trees where they are needed most. Trees help reduce carbon dioxide exposure. It can be added to Chrome.
  • In the United States, if you wants to contact selected officials and make your voice heard on climate change action – you can do it here.

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