A resident flees his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Nov. 9 with only the clothes on his back. Wildfires erupted in Northern and Southern California in early November, forcing an estimated 160,000 to evacuate.
Stuart W. Palley

What California’s Devastating Wildfires Signal About Our Future

December 6, 2018

Ty Zollner, a firefighter with the city of Alameda, Calif., knew that the call for help would come soon. On the morning of Nov. 8, he, like other firefighters around the state, was listening to reports about a wildfire that had started near the town of Paradise. It sounded bad. Bulldozers were pushing burning cars off the road so people could flee. Requests for additional engines were pouring in. Soon enough, he was tearing up the freeway in a caravan of five engines, one of more than 5,500 firefighters who would descend on Butte County to combat the historic Camp Fire.

A native of Northern California, Zollner has been facing down wildfires for more than a decade. But he’s never seen destruction like what happened in Paradise, where flames tore through street after street of homes, indiscriminately turning the landmarks residents once navigated by into unrecognizable ash. “To see something like that is breath-taking,” he says.

All told, he stayed there with his team for 18 days, working to contain the flames for about a week and then turning to the grim work of search and recovery, helping to scour plot after plot after plot for human remains. At least 85 people died, and 11 more remained missing as of Dec. 4. Meanwhile, more than 150,000 acres burned to the ground in a matter of days.

The scene of devastation left in the wake of the Camp Fire shocked even people who have spent their careers addressing such disasters; it can be hard to comprehend what photographs from the area are showing. Yes, it’s common enough to see one mobile-home park or part of a community destroyed by fire, but an entire town? “This is unprecedented,” says Zollner. “The community will never be the same.”

Burned trees in the Paradise area in late November. Many residents of the town (pop. 26,682), which has few roads out, were trapped in gridlock as they attempted to escape when fire struck on Nov. 8. Some left their cars and fled on foot.
Philip Montgomery for TIME

That the future may be divined in fire is an ancient idea. Images of the Camp Fire flames hold their own vision of what is to come, and it doesn’t take a pyromancer to read them. After all, however shocking the scene may be, the wave of wildfires that has struck California in recent years was also totally predictable. For decades, scientists have warned that climate change would lead to more frequent and severe extreme -weather events. And, while not every extreme weather event can be linked to climate change, slowly but surely those incidents have become a reality, particularly in places like coasts, forests and floodplains, where humans have tested nature’s limits.

The link between climate change and wildfires is fairly straightforward. Warmer temperatures transform the fire season into a year-round phenomenon while dry weather kills off vegetation, creating fast-burning tinder. “It’s not really rocket science,” says University of Washington professor David Peterson, a forest expert. “If it gets warmer and drier, then we’re going to burn more area.”

And warmer and drier it has been in California. The Golden State, like the rest of the planet, has experienced year after year of record or near record–breaking temperatures this past decade. On top of that, the state suffered a historic drought earlier this decade that lasted more than five years and killed off millions of trees. This combination has contributed to a seemingly endless stretch of terror and loss, with nine of the state’s 20 most destructive fires blazing since 2015. Unbreathable air and tales of neighbors fleeing for their lives have become a yearly occurrence.

Scott McLean, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, describes the situation with resignation. “There’s no new normal. There’s no new,” he says. “We’ve been living with this for a couple years now. It’s just more of the same.”

Firefighters and Californians aren’t the only ones growing accustomed to a new climate reality. For decades scientists have foretold that the havoc humans have wrought on the planet would soon catch up to us, and a raft of extreme weather and climate events that occurred in 2018 look eerily similar to just what they warned would happen.

A burned car sits abandoned in Paradise, Calif. (pop. 26,682), in late November.
Philip Montgomery for TIME

This year was the third in a row with a worse-than–average hurricane season, doing tens of billions of dollars of damage and killing more than 100 people. Deadly heat waves popped up across the globe as scientists recorded month after month of near record temperatures. And sea ice in the Arctic, a key indicator of the delicate health of the earth’s oceans and atmosphere, reached one of its lowest levels in recorded history.

At the same time, scientists doubled down on their alarms, saying this year’s extreme weather is only a taste of what’s to come. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N.’s climate–science body, warned that the planet is dangerously close to warming by 1.5°C, a threshold for even more extreme events. A study in the influential medical journal Lancet showed that the phenomenon will result in a range of health effects from heatstroke to the spread of disease. And the National Climate Assessment (NCA), a report from 13 federal agencies, highlighted how climate change will damage communities across the country; fallout will include the spread of wildfires to new regions and sea-level rise along many coasts. “We’re on the cusp of this new change,” says Peterson, an author of the NCA’s forest chapter.

Already, state and local policymakers across the country are having to adapt to a reality that would have been hard to imagine not long ago.

In Northern California, some communities now require homeowners to build their homes with wildfires in mind — think less wood, more concrete — while others are reimagining how they zone new subdivisions altogether. And a year after several enormous 2017 wildfires were traced to contact between dead brush and power lines managed by the utility Pacific Gas & Electric, investors have sent its stock price plummeting over fears of a potential bankruptcy. (The Camp Fire’s cause remains under investigation, but many speculate the same catalyst may be to blame.) PG&E now preemptively cuts off power in some areas with high winds rather than risk sparking a fire.

“The climate is changing, and we’re seeing it firsthand,” says Kurt Henke, a former Sacramento fire chief who now heads AP Triton, a fire–consulting firm. “We have switched from a reactive standpoint to a proactive approach.”

Of course, the biggest and most urgent pro-active measure would be to cut the greenhouse–gas emissions that are actually causing the problem in the first place. That effort has stalled at the U.S. federal level, but it’s happening in communities across the globe from Pittsburgh to Paris. These moves may not be able to stop wildfires, hurricanes or flooding altogether, but they will help limit how bad those problems get. “Every bit of warming matters,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, in October.

Children wave a flag as President Trump visits Chico, Calif., on Nov. 17. Even in places that avoided the direct hit of wildfire, smoke caused the air quality to be ranked among the worst in the world in November.
Tom Brenner—The New York Times/Redux

None of these solutions — still uncertain and distant — are any consolation to the people on the ground whose lives were transformed overnight by the Camp Fire. The inferno took fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. Some 19,000 homes, business and other structures were destroyed, and a once bucolic town all but razed to the ground.

“Every time you think about how sad you are, you know that there’s 30,000 people who are feeling just like you right now,” says Patty Garrison, a displaced former Paradise resident. “There’s nowhere to go back to. It’s exponential.”

People on the front lines of these disasters are meanwhile bracing for the future. Zollner, the firefighter, is back home but says he’s still processing the Camp Fire. Even so, before he’s past the grim visions of this fire, he’s also preparing for the next. “I don’t think anybody can make the argument that things aren’t changing,” he says of the fires.

As the planet continues to burn, drown and melt, preparation is the only thing that will protect us. The sooner and better we adapt, the fewer lives will be lost, the fewer people displaced and the fewer cities — and countries — wiped off the map. Without action, make no mistake, the problem will not go away and no place will be left unscathed.

“I don’t want to see communities impacted like that. It’s terrible to see,” says Zollner, reflecting on the raging wildfire that took out Paradise. At the same time, he imagines, “it’s just a matter of when.”

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com and Katy Steinmetz at katy.steinmetz@time.com.