The deadly wildfires that engulfed the West Coast of the United States show that the debate over climate change is “over,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsum.
“Just come to the state of California. Watch it with your own eyes,” he told reporters on the charred mountain slope.
Fires have been raging in California, Oregon and Washington for three weeks.
Driven by winds in record heat, the fires burned millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 25 people.
On Friday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said dozens were missing in her state alone.
In recent weeks, fires have burned a total of 4.5 meters of acres – an area larger than Connecticut and slightly smaller than Wales, according to the National Interdepartmental Fire Center.
What did Newsom say?
The governor, a Democrat, spoke Friday as he inspected damage from a fire at the Northern Complex near Oroville, Northern California.
“The debate over climate change is over,” Mr Newsom told reporters. “It’s a climate emergency. It’s real and it’s happening.”
He acknowledged gaps in forest management in recent decades, but added: “This is a moment, but it is not the issue.”
Highlighting countries’ efforts to combat climate change, he said record heat waves and unprecedented fires were a problem long predicted by scientists.
Climate-skeptical President Donald Trump has highlighted poor fire control measures as the main cause of recent fires.
“You have to clear your forests – there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they are … so flammable,” he told a rally last month.
The northern complex fire, which has been burning since August 18, is among the deadliest in history. So far, ten bodies have been found and 16 others have gone missing.
As of August 15, California has seen at least 20 fire deaths. Tens of thousands of people are on evacuation orders as 14,800 firefighters continue to fight 28 major fires in the state.
While natural factors such as strong winds have helped spread these massive fires, the underlying global warming from human activities makes these fires larger and more explosive.
Nine of the 10 warmest years in the world have been recorded since 2005, and the UN warned this week that the five years from 2016 to this year are likely to be the hottest such period ever. Both Oregon and California have been warming by more than 1C since 1900.
Prolonged heat has seen six of the 20 biggest fires recorded in California, all occurring this year. In Oregon, a series of fires burned nearly twice the average annual losses in the last week alone.
In California, a prolonged drought over the past decade has killed millions of trees, turning them into powerful fuel for fires. Mountainous areas, which are usually cooler and wetter, dry out faster in summer, adding to the potential fuel load.
Climate scientists have predicted that western forest fires will increase in size, scale and impact, but their predictions are coming faster than expected.
- A really simple guide to climate change
What’s going on beyond California?
In Oregon, where firefighters are battling 16 major fires, 40,000 people are under mandatory evacuation orders.
The fires killed four people, but officials warned that the deaths could be much higher.
Gov. Kate Brown on Friday urged hosts to stay away from fire areas despite reports of looting.
“Let me assure you that we have the Oregon National Guard and the Oregon State Police monitoring the situation and preventing looting,” she said.
Beatrice Gomez Bolanos, 41, told Reuters about her family’s fearsome pursuit of safety through fires burning on both sides of their car. She told her four children to close their eyes as they ran.
“Everything is gone. We have to start from scratch again, but we are alive,” she told the agency.
At least one fire in Oregon – the Almeda fire, one of the most devastating in the state – is being treated as alleged arson.
Smoke pollution from wildfires has left Oregon’s largest city, Portland, with the worst air quality in the world, followed by San Francisco and Seattle, according to IQAir.com.
In Washington, firefighters are dealing with 15 major fires. A one-year-old boy died earlier this week when his family tried to escape a fire. His parents remain in critical condition.
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