Fires, floods and storms: America’s ‘permanent emergency’ has begun

This summer of climate horror feels like the ‘first, vertiginous 15 minutes of a disaster movie’, says The New York Times

Vehicles and a home are engulfed in flames
Vehicles and a home are engulfed in flames as the Dixie fire rages on in Greenville, California, on 5 August 2021
(Image credit: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Apocalypse Right Now would be an apt title for it, said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. This summer of climate horror feels like the “first, vertiginous 15 minutes of a disaster movie”.

It began with the hottest June in recorded history: temperature records were smashed not just in hot spots like Death Valley (54.4°C), but in such mild locales as British Columbia (49.6°C) and Seattle (42.2°C). That was followed by supercharged rain storms which created massive flooding in central Europe and China, turning streets into raging rivers.

And now we’ve got forest fires ravaging Siberia – Siberia, for heaven’s sake – Canada and the Pacific Northwest, where Oregon’s Bootleg Fire has so far consumed a staggering 400,000 acres of woodland, in a blaze so intense it has its own weather system – including lightning storms that start more fires. The inferno has also created a continent-wide plume of smoke now reddening sunsets and making it hard to breathe as far away as New York.

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Wildfires have long been a part of California’s forest environ­ment, said Gary Yohe on The Hill, but their extent and number has hugely increased in recent years. Nine of the ten largest have occurred since 2012. The August Complex Fire which broke out in August 2020 became the largest in California history, quickly followed by four more fires which became the third, fourth, fifth and sixth largest: they were still blazing in October. And now the Dixie Fire raging in California could dwarf them all.

The probability that this accelerated pattern of outbreaks is due to anything other than climate change is minuscule. That’s the one consolation of this “catastrophic summer”, said Sofia Andrade on Slate. More and more people now perceive “the existential threat the climate crisis poses”. The dire scenarios climate scientists projected for 2030 or 2040 are “already here”.

In fact, the scientists now wonder if their computer models of climate change have been too conservative by an order of magnitude, said Andrew Freedman on The Pacific Northwest heatwave which killed almost 200 people and melted power lines in Portland, Oregon with mind-blowing temper­atures of 46.6°C, was “so far from the norm”, it has led experts to re-evaluate what’s possible. For example, one phenomenon climate models didn’t foresee is a “stuck” jet stream, which instead of moving weather around, locks in rain storms, heatwaves, hurricanes and droughts for extended periods.

The outcomes of such a disaster has been made worse by climate change, said Ilan Kelman in The Washington Post, but the disasters themselves have “more to do with humans carelessly getting in nature’s way rather than with nature itself”. Natural fires as well as prescribed burns are actually needed to cleanse forests of dry timber; the big human mistake is to build housing in woodsy fire zones. Cities need to build walls and new drainage tunnels to limit damage from surging rivers and rising seas. And places like Portland need to set up cooling shelters to protect the elderly and vulnerable in heatwaves.

“Adaptation” has long been a “dirty word” to eco-activists, said David Wallace-Wells on They see it as surrender­ing the fight to decarbonise society and halt global warming. But this summer’s “freakish showcases of climate horror” expose that as a false choice. Efforts to replace fossil fuels must accelerate dramatically, but it would be “criminal to fail to focus on managing climate change”, now that summer has become a mass-casualty event. People are already suffering and dying in 47°C heat, biblical floods and decades-long droughts. We need to help them. The “permanent emergency” has begun.

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