Top Ten Stories of 2020: The World On Fire

This year will be remembered for literally turning the sky red — wildfires in California were so severe that they cast a red pall across large areas of the state — and the photos were the most vivid sign yet that climate change is not some future apocalypse, but is already upon us.

The year began with the worst wildfire season ever experienced “Down Under.”  As we wrote last January, the world watched in disbelief at images of people and animals fleeing for their lives as more than 200 fires have burned roughly 12 million acres. As CBS News reported, the fires forced more than 100,000 residents and tourists to flee in one of the largest evacuations in Australia’s history.  Our hearts were warmed by this story of seamstresses in Minnesota using donated cotton and flannel fabric to make hundreds of cloth wraps that they sent to carers in Australia so they could “cuddle and comfort” injured and displaced wildlife like koalas and kangaroos.

Fire was a global phenomenon.  In August we reported that fires had ravaged the biodiversity-rich Pantanal region of Brazil. In the first fifteen days of August alone, the national space research agency of Brazil recorded 3,121 fires, which is almost five times greater than last year.  At the end of June, we wrote that a record-breaking high temperature of 100° F was detected in the northeastern Siberian town of Verkhoyansk.  European scientists found that intense wildfires in the Arctic in June released more polluting gases into the Earth’s atmosphere than in any other month in 18 years of data collection. In fact, we learned that some of these fires were zombie or “holdover” fires are those that continue to burn underground and then reignite on the surface after a period of time — sometimes many months or even years later.

And then it was the fall from hell for the Western U.S.  Before the season had officially begun, it was out of control — in early September there were 25 major fires burning across the state. As UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said in a tweet, the wildfire situation has “escalated to the point that I can no longer keep track of the countless massive, fast-moving, and potentially very dangerous fires. The geographic scale and intensity of what is transpiring is truly jarring.” Air quality dropped exacerbating the problems for people suffering from COVID-related and other breathing illnesses like asthma.  Fires raged in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona.  And in Arizona, the temperature reached a high of more than 100 degrees for months on end, and Phoenix by late August had seen 50 days when the temperature reached 110 degrees or more, shattering the old record of 33.

The only silver lining was that all the heat and fire began to raise public awareness of its dangers.  Heat is considered a “silent killer” because there is little awareness about its health risks. To raise awareness many experts have recommended naming heat waves just like we do hurricanes and now winter storms.  We have now vividly seen our future and it will continue to be on fire unless we make needed changes and soon.

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