California Gov. Gavin Newsom is pushing to speed up his state’s effort to fight climate change as wildfires rip through the region at a record pace and a 1,000 mile (1,610 kilometer) sheet of smoke drives air quality to dangerous levels.
"This is a climate damn emergency. This is real,” Newsom said in a briefing Friday from a fire zone in Butte County, surrounded by charred trees shrouded in smoke.
His comments came as air quality across the western U.S. deteriorated in the wake of record-breaking wildfires that have consumed more than 3.1 million acres in California and 1.4 million acres in Washington and Oregon. Damage could top $50 billion, according to Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research.
And Oregon officials warn that the blazes may have claimed many lives, although they have not yet released a death count. In California, 20 people have died during the last month of relentless wildfires.
"We are preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost,” said Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. About 40,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and around 500,000 residents are under evacuation notice in the state.
Newsom said the string of calamities striking the western U.S. — record heat waves, massive fires, smoke-filled skies blotting out the sun — were exactly the kinds of problems long forecast by climate scientists, only they’re happening sooner than expected.
He said he’d tasked the heads of the California Environmental Protection Agency and the natural resources agency with reviewing the state’s climate programs and finding a way to achieve 100 percent clean energy sooner than the current goal of 2045.
"I think 2045’s too late,” Newsom said.
The move, however, may garner pushback, as California’s aggressive push toward clean energy in recent years was partly to blame for blackouts during an August heat wave, the state’s first rolling outages in 20 years.
The air quality index in Eugene, Oregon, neared the ceiling set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday while Portland and Seattle had the worst air quality among major world cities, according to IQAir AirVisual pollution data.
The gloom will last into the weekend before a Pacific storm bringing rain to coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest and winds in Northern California may push the smoke eastward, according to the National Weather Service.
While the weather system might move the smoke, there’s also the risk that winds could fan the fires further, especially over the Sierra Nevada mountains, said Hannah Chandler-Cooley, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento, California.
Earlier this week, a wind storm prompted utilities in California and Oregon to proactively shut down power lines lest they be toppled by high winds and ignite new blazes. Utility PG&E Corp. said it found at least 52 instances of damage to its de-energized equipment from the wind storm.
"The moisture is good for fire suppression, but the winds are not,” Chandler-Cooley said.
There are no critical fire weather conditions present across the U.S. and none forecast through the weekend, the U.S. Storm Prediction Center said. However, low humidity in many areas of the West and high temperatures mean the risk of fire spreading will remain.
The highest chances for rain will be in Oregon and Washington, said Bryan Jackson, a meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.