Last week, wildfires swept through Chile, fueled by hot, windy weather. The blazes claimed 11 lives, razed 1,500 homes and burned down an area of forest roughly the size of Maui. Flames filled the sky with soot and ash and rendered once-vibrant towns as burnt and desolate as the surface of Mars.
The fires were among the worst in Chile’s history but they were hardly surprising. Rather, they were an example of trends unfolding around the world, including inside the United States. In many ways, Chile offers a mirror image of what’s happening in California, where heat and drought have set the stage of more frequent and intense wildfires.
Santiago, Chile and Los Angeles, California lie roughly the same distance from the equator and are subject to the same climatological forces. Both areas have endured years of record-breaking drought that has thinned forests and desiccated farms. In the summer heat, when winds pick up, fires can start easily and spread rapidly through dried vegetation.
For this, blame climate change. Heat-trapping carbon pollution is driving temperatures up across the globe, setting the conditions for severe heat, persistent dry spells and a high risk of fire. A recent study found that 25 percent of central Chile’s rainfall deficit could be attributed to human-caused climate change. Consistent with planetary warming, Chile is breaking heat records right and left. California is doing the same.
These places aren’t alone. The same pattern of heat and drought seen in Chile and California has emerged in Australia and South Africa, which lie the same distance from the equator and are enduring the same climatological shift.
As the wildfires in Chile make clear, climate change presents a potent risk. Americans are actually more likely to be killed by a fire or a heat wave than by a terrorist attack. The danger is only increasing as wildfires and heatwaves are becoming more regular.