California Needs Forests to Fight Climate Change, but They Are Going up in Smoke | Top News

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California’s record wildfires pose a problem for the state’s plan to use its forests to help offset climate-warming emissions.

It is unclear how much California’s plan for becoming carbon-neutral by 2045 depends on its forests. But as climate change fuels increasingly frequent and intense blazes, any plan that relies on keeping forests healthy could be frustrated.

California’s climate-change agenda is among the most ambitious in the United States, but thanks to wildfires, forests are “part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Edie Chang, a deputy executive director at the California Air Resources Board (CARB), told Reuters.

With global efforts to cut the use of fossil fuels falling short of what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change, scientists believe capturing climate pollution already emitted will be necessary to limit warming. Maintaining the health of forests, which suck up and store carbon, are among those solutions.

The most populous U.S. state has suffered five of its six largest wildfires in history this year as heat waves and dry-lightning sieges coincided with drier conditions that climate scientists blame on global warming.

This year, a record 4 million acres in California have burned, releasing decades of stored carbon into the atmosphere. That amounts to more than 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, assuming the scorched acres held similar amounts of carbon as acres burned in previous years, said Emily McGlynn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Davis.

That is equivalent to nearly half the state’s annual human-caused emissions.

And that is just for 2020.

Between 2001 and 2014, California’s forests and natural lands lost an amount of carbon equivalent to 511 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, McGlynn said – roughly the same amount emitted by the state’s transportation sector over

On the front lines of California’s fires: Smoke, chaos and comrades in arms

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A Carson Hotshot with a wildfire in the background

A member of the Carson Hotshots works a fireline at the Slater Fire in Northern California.


USFS/Carson Hotshots/H. Kligman

With unprecedented fires burning millions of acres across the Western US the past few months, firefighters and other personnel from across the country have responded to the call to help contain the devastating blazes. 

Northern New Mexico, where I live, has managed to escape the worst of this horrifying fire season, with just a handful of smaller wildfires. That has freed up firefighting crews like the National Forest Service’s Carson Hotshots, based in Taos, to help on those larger fires. 

The Hotshots are an elite firefighting crew specializing in wildfire suppression and emergency situations. The team’s standards for physical fitness and training are intense. I’ve occasionally marveled when mountain biking around Taos with members of the crew, who carry on conversations as we pedal up steep trails and I struggle to breathe, let alone speak. 

The crew spent part of last month dealing with conflagrations in Colorado, and after just a short break at home to recuperate, traveled west to assist on the Slater Fire near Happy Camp, California. Since the fire started on Sept. 8, it’s burned over 150,000 acres in a forested region along the California-Oregon border. As of Tuesday, the blaze was only 40% contained, and its cause is still under investigation.

I checked in with my local Hotshots team to see what it’s like living, for weeks at a time, camped out in the shadow of an inferno, dealing with bugs, coronavirus precautions and each other.

Carson Hotshots and their "buggie"

The Carson Hotshots and their “buggie” in California.


USFS/Carson Hotshots/H. Kligman

Hannah Kligman, a Carson Hotshots senior crew member, took on the task of typing out

NASA observations aid efforts to track California’s wildfire smoke from space

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NASA observations aid efforts to track California's wildfire smoke from space
On Aug. 31, MODIS detected several hotspots in the August Complex Fire in California, as well as several other actively burning areas to the north, west, and south. Credit: R. Kahn/K.J. Noyes/NASA Goddard/A. Nastan/JPL Caltech/J. Tackett/J-P Vernier/NASA Langley

Wildfires have been burning across the state of California for weeks—some of them becoming larger complexes as different fires merge. One of those was the August Complex Fire, which reportedly began as 37 distinct fires caused by lightning strikes in northern California on Aug. 17. That fire is still burning over a month later.


The August Complex Fire and others this fire season have been sending far-reaching plumes of wildfire smoke into the atmosphere that worsen air quality in California and beyond. Predicting where that smoke will travel and how bad the air will be downwind is a challenge, but Earth-observing satellites can help. Included among them are NASA’s Terra and CALIPSO satellites, and the joint NASA-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Suomi NPP satellite. Together, the instruments on these satellites provide glimpses at the smoke over time, which can help improve air quality predictions.

“The satellite instruments have the advantage of providing broad coverage and consistent measurement accuracy over time, as well as making their observations without any risk to the people taking the data,” said Ralph Kahn, a senior research scientist with the Earth Sciences Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who studies aerosols. Kahn and other atmospheric scientists at NASA collect data about the fires from Earth-observing satellites used to improve models that predict how wildfire smoke will affect air quality downwind of the fires.

MISR: Assessing the Situation from Different Angles

One of the instruments on NASA’s Terra satellite is the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR), which has nine different cameras pointing toward Earth at

Smoke traveling from western wildfires spreads bad air quality across the US

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Devastating wildfires across the Western United States has sent smoke traveling across the country and even into Europe. With that smoke comes bad air quality, not just for those near the fires, but for the entire continent.

Satelite images from NASA shows smoke thousands of miles from the fire. NASA says the smoke contains aerosols, a combination of particles which carry harmful things into the air and into your lungs. All the things that are burning, trees, grass, brush, homes, are turned into soot and absorbed by our lungs.

“This pollution, nobody knows how badly it will be affected but if we extrapolate from previous air quality it’s not good,” Dr. Malik Baz, the medical director at the Baz Allergy and Sius Center, said. “The long-term side effect, we’ll see many, many years down the line.”

Baz’s operates 13 locations in California, all of them are busy as Central California is essentially a big bowl surrounded by mountains which trap pollution over the valley. Air quality is always an issue for this part of the state and fires multiply the problem.

“People with respiratory, allergy, asthma, ,sinus problem, anytime the air quality goes bad, their symptoms get worse,” Baz said. “It affects them but this air quality, it doesn’t matter whether you have respiratory problems or not, everyone is affected.”

It’s bad in other western cities too.

“This is really an unprecedented wildfire season in 2020,” said Jon Klassen, director of air quality science and planning for San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. “We have fires across most of the states in the western US, Washington, Oregon, California, Seattle. Portland has some of the worst air quality in the world right now, which is shocking because normally they have pretty good air quality.”

Klassen’s job is to monitor and