Future Tense

The Western U.S. Is Not OK

People stand outside of two cars to watch as smoke takes over the sky.
The Walbridge fire, part of the larger LNU Lightning Complex fire, seen from a vineyard in Healdsburg, California, on Aug. 20. Josh Edelson/Getty Images

In 2013, artist K.C. Green drew a comic you’ve probably seen bouncing around the internet: It’s a dog sitting at a table indoors, with flames surrounding it.* “This is fine,” the dog says, and in the next panel: “I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently.” The “this is fine” dog has become a metaphor for helplessness or despair in response to disturbing news. But lately it’s become not just a metaphor, but a literal representation of what many people in the Western U.S. are experiencing.

Much of the western half of the U.S. is on fire or suffering from its fallout. Over the weekend, there were at least eight new blazes in Washington state, one of which burned a 90-mile-long path in a day. Another destroyed 80 percent of structures in the town of Malden. Several new fires popped up in Oregon as well, and heavy winds quickly spread existing fires. The situation there is changing by the moment; on Tuesday morning, Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Erin Ross tweeted that she was “not sure how to capture the scope and number and speed of the fires across Oregon right now,” as evacuation orders keep shifting with the fast-moving fires.

Since mid-August, firefighters have also been battling record-setting wildfires near the Bay Area, and this weekend, winds and record high temperatures sparked new blazes.
The El Dorado fire made headlines when it was revealed that it was ignited by a pyrotechnics display at a gender reveal party. (Of course, someone adapted the “this is fine” meme to highlight the absurdity of the situation.) Another new blaze, the Creek fire, started Friday, trapping people in the Sierras and prompting airlift rescues on Saturday and Tuesday morning. More fast winds are forecast in California, so Pacific Gas & Electric has shut down power in across large swaths of the state to prevent any errant powerlines from sparking additional fires.

The numerous fires have blanketed large portions of the Western U.S. in smoke. A satellite image taken Monday showed smoke blowing as far east as Kansas, and closer to the fires, entire towns look like Mars, even in the middle of the day.

Meanwhile, other Western states have experienced a whole Mad Libs of other weather emergencies. Just check out the National Weather Service’s website and you’ll see a colorful mix of weather alerts issued across the area. In Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, hot fire weather gave way to snowstorms Tuesday, with temperatures dropping as much as 60 degrees in just a day. Snow in Denver set a record for earliest snow accumulation on record. Utah is seeing record winds and power outages, prompting Salt Lake City public schools to cancel their first day of classes.

In case you’re wondering if this is normal: It absolutely is not. Historically, fire season in California peaks in October, and Denver hasn’t gotten snow in September for two decades. Often, vacationers in San Francisco complain that the weather isn’t as warm as they were expecting for California—“the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” people like to say—but the Bay Area hit 100 degrees this weekend. And these aberrant patterns aren’t the only extreme weather we’ve seen across the U.S. lately: Hurricane Laura pummeled the Louisiana coast less than two weeks ago, and a couple of weeks before that, a derecho whipped through Iowa, where winds over 100 miles an hour damaged more than 800 buildings and up to 43 percent of the state’s soybean and corn crop, according to Radio Iowa.

In any given year, each of these individual events might be newsworthy. Together, they suggest that extreme weather is becoming more commonplace—an outcome climate scientists have long warned will be a result of climate change. Using attribution science, scientists can analyze data to understand how climate change plays a role in driving individual extreme weather events.

Before I moved to the West Coast a decade ago, I understood that, of course, there were fires in this part of the country, but I didn’t understand the emotional toll until I’d lived through a few. (I feel extraordinarily grateful that I have not yet even had to evacuate; so many people I’ve met have lost loved ones, beloved pets, and their homes.) It’s difficult to describe the sense of doom a heavy cloak of wildfire smoke imparts: the claustrophobia of staying inside, the often intense heat of fire weather in areas that largely lack air conditioning, the orange tint of the sky, the sun glowing an ominous red. It’s the same goosebump-raising awe you might experience during a solar eclipse, but tinged with fear and existential angst that we have front-row seats to the destruction of climate change. The cumulative effect of experiencing this year after year—especially for people who live in places like Sonoma County, which experienced record-setting blazes in 2017, 2019, and 2020—is abject dread, and for many, it brings back painful memories.

As we head into the peak of wildfire and hurricane season, people in the path of these events come to expect the unexpected: new weather records, bigger storms, and devastating destruction. We pack our go bags to make sure we’re ready for the worst, but we realize we’ve donated our N95 masks to doctors working in COVID-19 wards, and with the coronavirus raging, it’s not clear where we could go to be safe. “This is fine,” we say.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2020: This piece originally misstated that the comic features a photo of a dog. It features an illustration of a dog.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.