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People look toward the skyline obscured by wildfire

People look toward the skyline obscured by wildfire smoke during daylight hours from Kite Hill Open Space in San Francisco on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Jeff Chiu

Some sentences stop you. Here's one from last week:

The sun never came out in San Francisco on Wednesday.

The line referred to the Bay Area's blood-orange skies, which blotted out the sun. A hauntingly beautiful color in nature, it's now acquired a certain ominousness, born of the smoke and ash from fires chewing up huge swaths of the Western United States.

Paired with photos of towering flames, apocalyptic landscapes and shattered souls, it's an image of hell befitting our times, when so many people in so many places have watched things precious to them get burned down, blown down, or washed away.

The loss always staggers, but this round of fires is of a different magnitude. The heart of California's fire season has yet to come, the rainy season still a couple months away, but the state has blown past its record with well more than 3 million acres burned. More than 4,000 structures have been destroyed. The death toll is in double digits and rising. 

It's not just California. Oregon, Washington and Colorado are being ravaged.

It's not just the amount of fire. It's the speed at which it moves, the sudden and terrifying evacuations, the helicopter airlifts, the huge tracts gone in eye-blinks. In Oregon, 900,000 acres burned in 72 hours when the yearly average is 500,000. One fire last week consumed more than 200,000 acres in one day. That's 237 Central Parks. In one day. No wonder the worst pollution levels on the planet then were near Salem.

It's not just here. Wildfires have ravaged Brazil, Greece, Argentina, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Siberia and Australia.

And it's not just wildfires. The Atlantic Ocean has spawned a record number of storms for this time of year. Fierce typhoons have lashed Pacific Rim countries. The temperature in Death Valley reached 130 degrees last month. The average temperature in Phoenix in August was 99.1 degrees, breaking the record set the previous month of 98.9. Even Siberia topped 100 degrees.

The cause of the fires out West is clear. Climate change prematurely melts winter snow packs and delays rainy seasons, extending the season for fire. Droughts kill trees and dry out fallen wood left on the ground by decades of misguided fire suppression tactics. The tinder is kindled by Mother Nature (lightning), human activity (e.g., power lines sparking when downed by wind), or human idiocy (the Southern California gender reveal party whose pyrotechnic device started a wildfire).

We can ache for the trees now gone, the landscapes now charred and leveled, the heartbreak of families now homeless, the mounting number of the dead and missing. We can be awed by the scope of the calamity, transfixed in mute horror by images of smoking shells of cars and homes, flames licking escape routes, and exhausted firefighters tasked with the impossible. We can lament the difficulty of replenishing these forests, with so many trees burned so completely that their seeds were destroyed, with damage so widespread that seeds from areas not burned can't be dispersed by nature to fill the whole area, with a climate too hot and dry to allow seedlings of some species to survive.

And we can be alarmed that at the rate things are going we might look back some day and think 2020 was not a bad year.

There are some heartening signs. Two-thirds of Americans say we're not doing enough to fight climate change. A majority supports bans on building in areas that are prone to fires and floods. Similar numbers support paying people to relocate from such areas. Our policymakers, unfortunately, lag far behind.

Some fires are just fires. Some are metaphors. We must learn from both, or we'll continue to burn.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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