Satellite image of North America on September 15, 2020.

Amid Record-Breaking Fires, Debate Over Blame

Between 2001 and 2010, wildfires burned a total of 7.03 million acres in California, according to a recent analysis published in The Los Angeles Times.

In 2020 alone, fires have already burned 3.2 million acres, destroying buildings, breaking records, and killing at least 25 people in the state. The largest of these fires, the August Complex, has already consumed an area bigger than the state of Rhode Island. And the blazes aren’t done yet: Twenty-six major wildfires are currently burning in California.

High heat, dry air, low rainfall, and strong winds have also fueled devastating conflagrations in Washington state and in Oregon, where fires have destroyed several small towns, killed at least 10 people, and left 22 missing. Smoke from the West Coast fires has reached the East Coast and suffused skies in parts of the West with a surreal orange tint. The smoke has also caused dangerous air quality in the region, with elevated levels of PM2.5, particulate matter that’s linked to a range of health effects.

Reactions to the fires swiftly polarized. Some progressive politicians emphasized the role of climate change, while some conservative commentators, along with President Donald J. Trump, downplayed the effect of climate change, instead blaming the blazes solely on poor forest management. “It’ll start getting cooler,” Trump told a California state official who had expressed concern about the effects of a warming climate on the state’s fires.

As early as 2000, government experts were predicting that climate change would amplify wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. Researchers consistently find that the effects of climate change — including hotter, drier summers — have driven the surge in Western wildfires in the past several years.

“There are no climate change denialists on the fire lines,” Tim Ingalsbee, a former firefighter who now directs Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, an advocacy group, told The Washington Post.

Still, many analysts, including Ingalsbee, do also point to poor forest management practices as an important reason for the severity of the fires. In a story published at ProPublica, the reporter Elizabeth Weil writes that, according to researchers, “between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California.” Today, extensive efforts to suppress fires allow vegetation to accumulate. That buildup provides fuel for megafires — a situation that’s then compounded by the effects of climate change.

Indigenous peoples in California once helped thin vegetation with prescribed burns. For years, some land managers and researchers have called for more controlled burns: carefully managed fires that can prevent the development of such dense, flammable forests. “We’re at 20,000 acres a year,” one expert told Weil, describing California’s modest controlled burn efforts. “We need to get to a million. What’s the reasonable path toward a million acres?”

Also in the News:

• Amid worries that a coronavirus vaccine will be rushed out for political purposes, two major drugmakers took the rare step of publicizing detailed plans of the protocols they will use to determine the safety and efficacy of the vaccines they are developing. On Thursday, Moderna, a biotechnology company with a leading vaccine candidate, released a 135-page document detailing testing plans for its coronavirus vaccine, currently in phase III trials. Under the plan, a data monitoring board will perform a preliminary analysis after 53 participants have contracted the coronavirus, a milestone that the company says is unlikely to be reached before November. If the preliminary analysis is inconclusive, the board will do another assessment after 106 cases and, if necessary, a final analysis after 151 cases — a threshold likely to be reached next spring. Hours after the Moderna announcement, Pfizer released plans for a vaccine it is developing with German biotechnology company BioNTech SE. Taking what’s been described as a less conservative approach, Pfizer will do an initial assessment of its vaccine’s efficacy after just 32 trial participants contract the coronavirus. The company’s CEO, Albert Bourla said on Sunday that there is a “good chance” the company will know by the end of October whether its vaccine works. (Bloomberg)

• Hurricane Sally, the 18th named storm of the unusually active 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, made landfall Wednesday in Florida and Alabama, causing massive, destructive flooding. Coastal communities, including Pensacola in the Florida panhandle, were also caught in winds that gusted at more than 120 miles per hour and a storm surge approaching six feet. As it moved inland, the storm caused additional flooding in Georgia, before moving into the Carolinas. Sally made landfall barely three weeks after Hurricane Laura slammed into Louisiana, leaving more than six people dead. Other storms are already lining up behind Sally. Hurricane Teddy, currently a Category 3 storm, is projected to pass over Bermuda next week and may then move toward the New England coast. And a low pressure system in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to become a tropical depression named Wilfred by week’s end, with meteorologists warning that it too could become a hurricane. Wilfred is the last on the list of 21 Atlantic storm names approved for this season by the World Meteorological Association; any additional storms will be named with the letters of the Greek alphabet. Researchers link at least some of the startling intensity of this hurricane season to the effects of global climate change. (The Washington Post)

• Scientists were abuzz Monday following the announcement that a potential sign of life had been observed on the planet Venus. Using a pair of powerful telescopes trained on the Venusian atmosphere, scientists detected and then confirmed a distinctive light signature associated with phosphine, a chemical that has been spotted in the atmospheres of two other planets besides our own: Jupiter and Saturn. On Jupiter and Saturn, both gas giants, phosphine can be spontaneously cooked up as their hot, highly pressurized atmospheres smoosh together the requisite hydrogen and phosphorus atoms. But on smaller, crustier planets like Earth and Venus, phosphine is thought to only be manufactured by a variety of microbes, or through processes like volcanic activity or lightning strikes. In their study, published in Nature Astronomy, the team used modeling to rule out some of the non-biological possibilities for Venus’s phosphine, but concluded that more data was needed to determine the true source of the gas. These caveats might have been missed by those who read no further than the splashy headlines, and, as the story circulated, its sometimes overheated reception spurred discussions among scientists – including some of the study’s authorscommunicators, and journalists about how to present exciting findings to the public without glossing over important uncertainties. (The New York Times)

• Cardiologists are warning athletes — both professional and amateur — to be cautious about returning to exercise immediately following a Covid-19 infection. While doctors have known for months that severe cases of the respiratory disease can cause damage to multiple organs, including the heart, some recent research suggests that even those with mild or non-existent symptoms may be at risk. Of particular concern is myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart’s muscular walls, which make it difficult for the organ to pump blood. The condition is known to be triggered by infections and has been observed in student athletes and others with Covid-19, though its full impact and prevalence is not yet clear. In autopsy studies, researchers have also noted the death of heart cells and blood vessel inflammation as possible factors in how the heart may be damaged. Despite the uncertainty, many athletic organizations are taking steps to mitigate the risk of illness or death by increasing health screenings and requiring some players to take time off. (Wired, Science)

• On Wednesday, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services announced that the department’s top spokesperson, Michael Caputo, would be taking a 60 day leave of absence. The announcement came after Caputo promoted conspiracy theories in a livestream on his personal Facebook page, first reported in The New York Times on Monday. In the video, Caputo accused some scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is part of HHS, of plotting “to attack Donald Trump.” He also said that CDC scientists “don’t want America to get well” until Biden is president, and urged Trump supporters to arm themselves in case of left-wing violence if Trump is reelected. In the livestream, Caputo reported that he had been struggling with his mental health recently, and he apologized to his colleagues this week for the comments. “I’m not going to comment on somebody’s personal social media posts,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar, adding that Caputo has “been a valued member of our coronavirus response team.” (NBC News)

• And finally: Scientific American is, by its own account, the longest continuously published magazine in the United States, producing its first issue in 1845 — a few months after Florida joined the union, and around the same time that Henry David Thoreau decamped to Walden Pond. This week, for the first time in that 175-year history, the magazine’s editorial staff endorsed a presidential candidate. Calling the tenure of President Trump simply too much to bear, the editors of the venerable science periodical, currently published by the American-German conglomerate Springer Nature, threw down the gauntlet, condemning the president’s handling of — and even his ability to grasp — the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, health care, and other aspects of American society that hinge on science and expertise. In contrast, Trump’s challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, “has a record of following the data,” the editorial stated, “and being guided by science.” The editors’ recommendation was unvarnished: “We urge you,” they wrote, “to vote for Joe Biden.” Reaction to the endorsement was swift and mixed, with thank-yous and how-dare-yous percolating on social media. Editor in chief Laura Helmuth told The New York Times that the magazine had little choice. “His administration,” she said, “has been just a disaster for science at every level.” (Scientific American, The New York Times)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, Ashley Smart, and Tom Zeller Jr. contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.