Pollution in DTLA from the 60s to Now: Smoke is the New Smog
Throughout the nineteen sixties, seventies, and eighties, a dark layer of photochemical smog clouded downtown Los Angeles. Produced by carbon emissions, this toxic smog came to define the city in many unflattering ways. Today, the smog is not as noticeable, however, a new kind of cloud has arrived to mask the face of La-La-Land yet again.
This time around, the cloud is composed of smoke from wildfires, and while this leftover smolder from burning forests may not be as immediately caustic as yester-decades’ smog, it could be more dangerous all the same, for it is a sign of California’s increasing vulnerability in the presence of the climate crisis.
Seasonal Wildfires in California Exacerbated and Turned Catastrophic by Climate Crisis
Wildfires in California, like hurricanes in the Deep South or blizzards up north, are somewhat seasonal. After a long, hot, and dry summer, the fires are only now starting to pick up, with an inordinate number of them taking place in the mountains around L.A. since the beginning of autumn. The region’s exceptionally arid landscape this time of year only helps the fires grow and travel at faster rates.
The reasons for these wildfires can vary, from natural causes to someone dropping a cigarette in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of them are sparked by something immediate and unfortunate. However, their range, frequency, and ferocity can be linked to global warming—especially over the past few years, as the fires have become more intense and the effects of the climate crisis have been increasingly perceptible.
Indeed, a simple wayward cigarette could ignite a wildfire, but how much damage that fire does is determined in part by something far more elemental. As the climate crisis heats up the earth, things naturally become more flammable. The ecosystem is meant to respond to temperature spikes with additional moisture. Unfortunately, we have not experienced such compensation yet, and with the climate crisis being an unnatural phenomenon, it is unwise for us to expect the planet to respond in natural ways.
Wildfire Prevention is More than Putting Out a Spark, it’s Environmental, and California’s is Highly Flammable
Thus, a small spark can easily kindle a fire that quickly spreads over dry foliage with the wind. Although Los Angeles itself is celebrated as a land of perfect weather, its surrounding canyons produce gusts of wind up to 80 miles per hour. Because climate change has been significantly limiting nature’s innate defense mechanisms, the average area affected by wildfires has increased almost four-fold over the past few decades.
Likewise, longer droughts are also making California’s fire season lengthier. The season is an estimated two months longer than it was in the 1970s, and the longer the season, the more destructive it can be. California’s six most intense seasons on record have all occurred in the past decade, and fifteen of the twenty most extreme individual fires have all taken place since the year 2000.
Official Red Flag Warnings, Evacuations, and Power Outages? Only a Precursor to Future Extremes
Just last week, the fires caused the National Weather Service to issue its first extreme red flag warning ever. A testament to how bad California’s fires are, this unprecedented warning shows that the recent wildfires are on par with some of the worst storms and tornadoes in our country’s history. In fact, they may be even more treacherous.
Californians and Angelinos in particular have already faced evacuations and power outages as results of the fires—and that is just over the past few weeks. President Trump, rarely a champion of progressive environmental policies, has hardly addressed the issue as California’s state government scrambles to combat the blazing infernos on its own. Despite the situation’s intensity, though, it is but a bleak microcosm of what the future may look like if the climate crisis continues to go unchecked by politicians.
From Smog to Smoke, the Only Difference is the Extent of our Unnecessarily-Long Relationship with Pollution
The fires are at their worst in the canyons and hills surrounding Los Angeles, but from downtown, residents can notice the smoke blocking the mountains on the horizon. The air is filled with the pungent smell of burning wood and the skyline becomes hazier each day, returning the city to its smog-infested image of former decades.
Given that the smog was the result of fossil fuel burning and the fires are fueled by the climate crisis today, we can see that their resemblance is familial, and that the smoke from the California’s wildfires are the deformed son, the resurrected corpse, the Frankenstein’s monster of the undead smog and carbon emissions that we continue to carelessly release into our planet’s atmosphere.
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