The Fires Sweeping Across Texas Offer a Terrifying Warning

 On Thursday, as flames from the Smokehouse Creek Fire raced east across the Texas Panhandle for the fourth consecutive day faster than a person could run, a cold front swept southward over the Great Plains, driving blizzards . In a primal collision, fire and ice met east of Amarillo, the swirling fragments joined, and then melted, turning the vast prairie fires into smoke and ash.

The blizzard has passed, but the fire – one of several major fires active in Texas – continues to burn. As of Friday, the Smokehouse Creek fire had affected more than one million acres, making it the largest wildfire in Texas history, and one of the largest in the nation's history. Still only 15 percent contained, it crossed into Oklahoma, leaving behind herds of dead cattle and dozens of burned homes. At least two people have died. The forecast is for what those in the firefighting business call “fire weather” – hot, dry and windy. Under these conditions, dozens of fires in the area could, theoretically, continue burning indefinitely.

Texans know that fires are not unusual in the Panhandle this time of year, and neither is snow. But huge, deadly fires like Smokehouse Creek show otherwise. Winter fires on this scale signal huge disruptions in climate stability that will distort not only our concept of the seasons, but everything we do and care about.

Two weeks before the smokehouse fire, I flew from Cincinnati to Seattle, overlooking a landscape I know well. But about 30,000 feet below my window seat was a country I barely recognized: from the Ohio River to the Rockies, there was virtually no snow; Lakes and rivers were ice free. I'm a northerner, and I know what February looks like, but what season was it?

For several weeks now, red flag warnings from the National Weather Service indicating increased wildfire danger have been popping up across the United States – from the Mexican border to the Great Lakes and the Florida Panhandle. Similar warnings are in place north of the Canadian border. On February 20, the province of Alberta, the Texas-sized petro-state above Montana, declared the official start of fire season. This was about two weeks earlier than the previous year, and six weeks earlier than a few decades ago. Alberta is in the middle of Canada, a famously cold and snowy place, and yet there are nearly 50 wildfires in that province. In neighboring British Columbia, where I live, there are about 100 active fires, many of which stemmed from last year's famous fire season (the worst in Canadian history), fueled by low snowfall and above average winter temperatures. .

It's worrying to see these fires and warnings in the dead of winter, but fires, no matter how disturbing and dangerous, are just a symptom. What is happening in North America is not a regional aberration; It's part of a global departure – what climate scientists call a phase change. The past year has seen nearly every metric of the planetary crisis slide into uncharted territory: sea surface temperature, air temperature, polar ice loss, fire intensity – you name it, it's off the charts. The temperature in Wisconsin on Tuesday was 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and in Paraguay it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit; Large parts of the North Pacific and South Atlantic are running more than five degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

Thomas Smith, an environmental geographer at the London School of Economics, summarized it this way for the BBC in July: “I don't know of a similar period when entire parts of the climate system were in record-breaking or unusual territory. ” And with these extremes come fatalities: More than 130 souls died in a wildfire outside Valparaiso, Chile, last month — more than the death toll in the Maui fire last August or the blaze in Paradise, California, in 2018. - making them the deadliest fires in the world. The Black Saturday fires in Australia in 2009.

Historically, it is humans who have left the natural world behind. From arrowheads to artificial intelligence, our species has consistently advanced faster than geologic time. But now, geologic time – in particular, atmospheric time and ocean time – is moving just as fast, in some cases faster than us – faster than technology, faster than history. The world we thought we knew is changing beneath our feet because we have changed it.

Exxon's own scientists predicted these fossil fuel-driven anthropogenic changes nearly half a century ago, but we still aren't prepared for them, and neither are most of our fellow creatures. If there's one thing I learned from writing about wildfires, it's that this hotter, less stable world is not the "new normal." We are entering clima incognita – “unknown climate”. There are dragons here, and some of them spit fire 20 miles wide.

My serious advice is to listen to the climate scientists, meteorologists, fire officials. They are trying to save your life. And if you see a fire on the horizon, don't focus on the flames, focus on the wind: if it's blowing toward you, the embers are there too, and you'd better be ready to go.

John Vaillant is a journalist and author whose latest book, "Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World", won Britain's Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction in 2023 and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

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