For the last few weeks, the California wildfires have been all over the news. The quotes above are just a few of the recent headlines. The wildfires are causing mass destruction, but this is not something that’s only happening this year. The wildfires are an annual event in Northern California.
According to Cal Fire, “From January 1st, 2020 to August 16th, 2020 there have been 5,356 fires in California. Those fires have destroyed a combined total of 100,916 acres of land.” According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, “In 2019, there were 6,872 fires in California, burning 253,321 acres, with 732 structures damaged or destroyed.”
Every year, the wildfires rip through the hills, and a thick cloud of smoke settles all over the state.
There are many reasons that the wildfires occur, here are the most common three:
1. Climate Change
Over the years, California’s climate has gotten hotter. The heat has caused the fires to grow worse.
California’s climate has changed visibly over the years. Warmer and drier conditions have led to less snow in the Sierras, which means less runoff in the spring, which leads to less fertile land. Those dry vegetation patches make it easier for massive land fires to ignite and spread through fields
According to a report by The New York Times, 9 out of 10 of the largest fires recorded were in the past decade. 2016, was the hottest year on record. The average was 1.78 degrees Fahrenheit above the average of the 20th-century average.
The biggest fire in the history of California wildfires was the Mendocino Complex Fire in July 2018. It spread across Colusa Country, Lake County, Mendocino County, and Glenn County. It destroyed 459,123 acres of land, along with 280 structures.
If you measured the land ruined by fire and placed it on a map of the Bay Area, it would span from San Francisco to the outer part of the East Bay, and down towards the South Bay, an area that is home to millions of people.
A firefighter from Utah lost his life while battling the larger of the two fires. These fires can be incredibly deadly, and the only thing worse than losing land is losing people. It cost almost 200 million dollars to control the fire, still, it left a large black patch on the previously lush green hills. California was covered in a thick layer of smoke that was visible to satellites from space.
In December 2017, the Thomas fire consumed 281,893 acres of land in the Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. 1,063 buildings/homes were burned. The Thomas Fire was the second-largest fire in the history of California. One person died, while one firefighter and 22 civilians were injured.
Then came the Valley Fires in 2015, the fourth more damaging fire in California. In 2016, the Soberanes fire destroyed over 132,000 acres of precious land in Monterey County. Next, came the Camp Fire in 2018, the deadliest fire in California history.
It took the lives of eighty-six people, destroyed 18,804 buildings, and cost a shocking total of 16.5billion U.S dollars. As global temperatures rise, life will continue to dry out, fires will continue to become more fierce, and frequent.
According to National Geographic, the land burned today in California is eight times more than the number it was in the 1970s. Not only has more land been consumed by the flames, but the “fire season” has started expanding, almost seventy-five days more than the previous time span.
As Faith Kearns, of the UC Institute for Water Resources in Oakland, described to National Geographic, thanks to climate change it is becoming harder and harder to not only control the fires but predict them.
California is also notorious for incredible winds, especially the Bay Area. During the summers, San Francisco becomes the windiest city in America. If you’re wondering why- it's because the ocean is freezing cold, and the inland is warm. The high-pressure air rushes from the ocean and the low-pressure air rushes from the mainland, causing strong wind. The Santa Ana winds in Southern California can reach about 40 miles per hour, that’s 64 kilometers per hour.
Strong winds make fires especially worse. If there are high winds near the location of the fire, it prevents air support - retardant dumping planes, water helicopters, and rescue aircraft. They can also pick up embers, and deliver them to other locations, creating more fires.
This is what a fire tornado looks like - imagine that! Two deadly natural phenomenons wrapped up in one. Essentially, a fire tornado is just what it’s composed of - fires, and winds. The winds pick up burning embers of the fire and whirl them around at dangerous speeds.
Fortunately, fire tornadoes are rare. However, according to meteorologist Dawn Johnson, one is brewing in Northern California right now. Just another terrifying gift 2020 has brought us. A study in 2018 suggested that Southern California actually has two separate fire seasons: one is driven by dry land, and the other by the Santa Ana winds.
Nonetheless, the same danger lurks in Northern California- they’re known as the Diablo winds. These winds can speed up to 80 miles/hour. These fires cause millions, sometimes billions of dollars worth of damage to grasslands and empty regions. Imagine what would happen if these winds carried the blazes to cities?
Fires are much harder to control in populated areas because more structures are endangered. More importantly, more people are endangered.
3. People/Electric Faults
According to a study done by Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado, - “97% of fires in coastal California are started by people, either on purpose or accidentally.”
The top kindlings equipment use, especially lawnmowers, weed whackers, and chainsaws. Part of the Camp Fire in 2018 was a man ignited. It killed eighty-six people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
Come to think about it, it's not climate change or even winds that are starting the fires, it is us human beings. Yes, drylands and strong winds are making matters worse, but if there is no ignition there cannot be a spread.
In 2018, the Carr Fire in Shasta County was caused by someone driving a trailer on the rim of a flat tire. The 2003 Cedar Country in San Diego was caused by a hunter’s signal fires.
It doesn’t help that humans are moving into fire-prone areas. Country-side and hills make beautiful homes, but they come with the risk of being burned quickly.
Fires are not something that will just “go away” they must be stopped, and or prevented. Climate change is making it harder for firefighters and meteorologists to see patterns between fire seasons because those patterns are now all chaotic.
Though not all of us have the bravery that it takes to be a firefighter, there are steps we can all take to prevent wildfires:
Report unattended fires - see a wild blaze in the mountains? Tell the local authorities. If fires can be controlled when they’re at the initial stages, it can save the land, buildings, and lives!
Use caution when using flammable liquids- One wrong move, and it could lead to a disaster, especially if you are in a particularly windy, or day region.
Don't throw lit cigarettes out of your moving car- Even better, just don’t smoke! However, if you refuse to listen to health officials about smoking, at least handle cigarettes, and other inflammable products with care.
Only use fireworks in clear areas with no woods nearby.- Fireworks are fun, but they can be extremely dangerous- not only can they start fires, but they cause pollution. So use fireworks scarcely, and be sure to use them in a safe environment.
Perhaps, nature cannot be stopped and wildfires continue, at least by preventing human ignited fires, we can save our land, our homes, and most importantly our people.
Written by Sarah Masih