The news coming out of California in recent years has been alarming – the state is burning! Devastating wildfires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres. These wildfires have also caused the loss of life, the displacement of thousands of residents from their communities, and billions of dollars in property damage. Here are some statistics:
- The most destructive wildfire on record, the campfire, occurred in 2018 in Butte County. It destroyed 18,804 structures and killed 85 people. The cause of the fire was attributed to power lines.
- In 2019, risk analysis determined that more than 2 million Californian properties are in danger from wildfires.
- Estimates suggest that at least 25% of California’s residents, or 11 million people, live in fire-prone areas.
Why Have California Wildfires Become More Destructive?
Although the number of wildfires has been decreasing, the fires have been getting more deadly and more catastrophic. The size, intensity, and burn acreage have all increased. Here are some numbers:
- In 2019, there were 44,390 wildfires in the US. They burned a total of 4,515.860 acres, representing a 500% increase in the area burned annually since the 1970s.
- Many of the worst fires have occurred in California.
- 15 of the 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred since 2000.
What Has Led to the Increase in Destruction From Californian Wildfires?
Frequent wildfires have always occurred naturally in California. Several of its ecosystems, from the northern pine forests to the southern chaparral, evolved to burn frequently. Moreover, Native Americans burned forests to keep them healthy. But beginning in the 1980s, the size and intensity of the state’s wildfires have been increasing. So, what is causing this trend? The main culprit seems to be climate change.
What Role Is Climate Change Playing?
The most disastrous Californian wildfires tend to happen in the fall. The long, dry summers transform vegetation into perfect fuel. Dry grasses, low shrubs, and young trees form a connection between the forest floor and the large overhead tree canopy. Then combine just one spark with annual fierce winds, and, in no time, the landscape is transformed into a blazing inferno.
How Are the Wildfires Fueled?
Over the past 100 years, the entire state has been warming, with southern California experiencing a temperature increase of about three degrees Fahrenheit, which is higher than the global average. Hotter air means drier vegetation that is primed to burn more readily. Moreover, the wildfire season - the period before the winter rains damp down the vegetation - has lengthened by 75 days. The fire season may now range from an earlier spring into a deeper autumn. The following five issues are also contributing to more intense Californian wildfires:
- Less snow. A warmer climate means less snow accumulation in the high mountains of California. Moreover, the snow that does fall is melting earlier, and spring is arriving sooner. All of this leaves vegetation vulnerable to fires earlier in the dry season.
- Worsening droughts. Droughts are frequent in California, but they are lasting longer - the state recently obtained relief from a seven-year drought. Every day it doesn’t rain is a day when wildfires can ignite and spread. In recent years, the rain hasn’t arrived until November or December.
- Dead trees. Bark beetle infestations have killed approximately 150 million trees, which are now primed to burn. The Sierra Nevadas that John Muir once called the Range of Light is becoming a range of ghosts.
- Santa Ana winds. In the fall and winter, winds blow across the state, with warm, dry air flowing down the western sides of mountain ranges. As the air proceeds downward, it gets channeled into valleys or canyons, speeding up as it goes - gusts can reach 70-80 miles per hour. Such winds can spread wildfires far, wide, and fast. This is what happened during the Thomas Fire in 2017 and the Camp Fire in 2018.
- A growing population. Although climate change is the main reason why wildfires have become a bigger threat, it’s not the whole story. An expanding population, spreading out into forested regions largely free of human habitation until recently, is placing more people and the natural world at risk. It is estimated that 95% of wildfires in California originate from human activity.
What Can Be Done to Prevent California Wildfires in the Future?
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has 35 priority fire prevention projects underway. These include clearing away brush adjacent to highways and taking down dead trees near residential areas close to fire-prone vegetation. Other steps being taken, include:
- Prescribed fires. Ironically, suppressing naturally occurring fires has contributed to an increase in the abundance of perfect fuel supply for fires. To reverse this situation, low-intensity prescribed fire is beginning to be used to better take care of the state’s increasingly flammable grasslands, chaparral, and forests. The aim is to restore these ecosystems to how they were in the past when fires caused by lightning burned undisturbed.
- Power cuts. In 2019, San Francisco-based PG&E stated that it would sharply increase the number of power shut-downs to prevent equipment sparking fires when risks are high. Although this plan has been heavily criticized, it could become the new normal until the utility commits itself to move its lines underground.
- Changes in Development. One obvious solution is to cease building homes in places that are at high risk from wildfires and to make existing homes more fire-resistant. Where new buildings are still being built in fire-prone areas, they are being constructed with wildfires in mind. This involves the use of fire-hardened materials, the construction of firebreaks between the woods and the development, and the creation of multiple evacuation routes.
How You Can Protect Your Home
You can take steps to help keep your home safe by paying attention to the fire ignition zone around your property. In addition, if you hear that a wildfire is occurring near you, PHOS-CHEK WILDFIRE HOME DEFENSE can help keep your property protected. This product is a colorless version of the orangish-pinkish material that is dropped by airplanes on wildfires.
Celebrating 10 years of Native News...
We launched Native News Online back in February 2011 with the belief that everyone in Indian Country deserves equal access to news and commentary pertaining to them, their relatives and their communities. That's why the story you’ve just finished was free — and we want to keep it that way, for all readers. We hope it inspires you to celebrate our first decade with a gift of $10 or more to Native News Online so that we can continue publishing more stories that make a difference to Native people, whether they live on or off the reservation. Your donation will help us keep producing quality journalism and elevating Indigenous voices. Any contribution of any amount — big or small — gives us a better, stronger future and allows us to remain a force for change. Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous journalism. Thank you.