The destructive power of wildfires is a defining characteristic of a summer marked by climatic extremes.
Dozens of people died on several continents. The fires have reduced homes and businesses to rubble. Thick smoke darkened the sky and carried fine particle pollution thousands of miles from its source.
It is an appalling phenomenon that climatologists around the world say has been aggravated and fueled by human-caused global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions have dramatically increased the chance of hot, dry weather, making severe fires more likely. And while good management can help — for example, controlled burns and the clearing of overgrown forests — it’s not always enough to thwart predictions, as climate change causes fire seasons to start earlier and last longer.
The tribute to be paid to humans will be heavy. Beyond the immediate consequences, experts say exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to long-term human health problems, with respiratory effects like asthma and COPD, as well as impacts on heart, brain and kidney function. Psychological damage can also be lifelong. People directly affected by wildfires may experience post-traumatic stress or mental health issues after losing loved ones, homes or livelihoods.
Fires are just one aspect of climate change, which also brings scorching heat, catastrophic storms and floods, and other wacky weather patterns. But the dramatic images from this summer’s underworld, from flames to ashes, are a stark reminder of just how much things have changed and how much we still have to lose.
WINDS ATTACK FLAMES IN GREECE AND TURKEY
A fire that raged in northeast Greece on Tuesday killed 18 people, likely migrants crossing the Turkish border, where, also in that country, villages in a northwest province were evacuated to protect the forest fire population. In the Greek city of Alexandroupolis, health authorities partially evacuated a hospital and other flames near the capital spread to Parnitha National Park, a green space northwest of Athens.
Greek firefighters have dealt with more than 350 fires in five days. High winds made the task more difficult, and hot, dry summer conditions were among the worst since weather records were compiled, authorities said. Across Europe, many regions experienced an extremely hot summer as global heat records hit all-time highs in July.
The Greek government is planning tougher penalties for arson following the damage, but extra heat from climate change is also to blame. And the fires are only adding to the warming cycle: Greece experienced its highest ever wildfire-related emissions in July, according to data from the Copernicus atmosphere monitoring service, part of the program European Union Earth observation system.
PANIC AND CHAMPION ON A MAUI RAVAGE
It started with a bushfire overnight in Kula. Then, a grass fire on the island near Lahaina started early in the morning and broke through the containment line by afternoon.
Without any warning, residents say they were unable to save many of their neighbours, including children. People tried to rush out of Lahaina, even as closed roads hampered evacuation efforts. Some, trapped in their cars, jumped over a sea wall in choppy waves to escape.
Eventually, the rubble became evident: the historic town of Lahaina had become the site of the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than 100 years.
Researchers say climate change and land use changes have magnified the cost of human error in this disaster, as wildfires, storms, floods and other disasters have increased in Hawaii. Sudden droughts, which have occurred this summer and are more likely due to global warming, can create an abundance of dry grass on the islands in no time. And as part of plantation agriculture has turned to ranching, more and more areas are now used as kindling, further fueling the problem.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden conducted an aerial tour of the devastation in Hawaii on Monday. In his remarks to Lahaina, Biden referenced the burnt but surviving banyan tree, considered beloved and sacred by many in the island community. The damage is enormous and cleanup will be difficult and time-consuming, Biden said.
But he added that a native Hawaiian chief he spoke to referred to the tree as “a hard-working diamond of hope.”
CANARY ISLANDS CONFLAGRATION
Like much of mainland Spain, popular tourist destination Tenerife has been plagued by drought for several years due to the impacts of climate change on regional weather patterns. These changes created the perfect spark for what police said was an arson attack that raged uncontrollably for several days.
Firefighters managed to limit the damage, with no injuries reported and no homes burnt down on Monday, but access remains difficult, especially in steep and steep mountainous areas. Meanwhile, thousands of people on the island have been evacuated or ordered to stay at home.
In addition, Spain continues to sweat under another wave of summer heat, with temperatures reaching 111 degrees Fahrenheit (44 degrees Celsius) in parts of the country.
OVER A THOUSAND FIRES ACROSS CANADA
This summer marks Canada’s worst wildfire season on record, and dozens of cities across North America have woken up to see — and smell — the huge plumes of smoke extending far beyond the forests where they went off for the first time. Regions closer to the poles are experiencing accelerated changes due to global warming, and Canada is no different. The summers are more intense and the winters warmer. Ice does not form as early and melts faster in the spring.
Indigenous communities have been disproportionately evacuated by wildfires across Canada this summer, even in far northern regions where wildfires are normally never an issue. Their homes may be in more isolated and fire-prone areas, including the boreal forest, a vital natural resource that stores carbon, purifies air and water, and regulates the climate.
Some evacuees crammed children and pets into travel hubs. Parents have been holding their children back while they wait to return home, a prospect that could materialize sooner as better weather arrives in some areas. Others watched from tents at a free campsite as the Northern Lights flashed over their temporary refuge. Like the Hawaiian banyan tree, it was a source of beauty despite what had been lost.