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Is the media making the connection between wildfires and climate change?

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By Keith Gaby

With entire towns in Oregon and Washington razed, ash raining down on Denver and the skies over San Francisco an apocalyptic orange, the unprecedented wildfire season in the Western U.S. is getting plenty of coverage. But much of it seems to ignore a central fact: This devastation — more frequent, bigger wildfires, and a longer fire season — is largely a consequence of climate pollution produced by burning fossil fuels.

The way it works is easy to understand. Rising temperatures, a key component of climate change, evaporate more moisture from the ground, drying out the soil and making vegetation more flammable. At the same time, winter snow-packs are melting about a month earlier, meaning that the forests are drier for longer periods of time. Meanwhile, shifting meteorological patterns can drive rain away from wildfire-prone regions, a phenomenon scientists previously discovered in California and have linked in certain cases to human-made climate change.

Even before this year’s devastating season, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the damage caused by wildfires. The average wildfire season in the West is three and a half months longer than it was a few decades back, and the number of annual large fires has tripled — burning six times as many acres.

Despite this, we have repeatedly seen coverage of the fires that lacks a prominent discussion of the cause of these worsening fires. Even some of the best news organizations in the U.S. are missing a key piece of this story in some of their articles.

It is like talking about the increased spread of COVID while ignoring the reason it is spreading.

The increase in wildfires is also part of a larger trend of costly climate impacts. Billion-dollar weather disasters fueled by climate change are becoming more frequent and more devastating to state and local economies, according to a report by Datu Research commissioned by Environmental Defense Fund.

We urge all outlets to explain these facts to their readers, viewers and listeners.

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