California Wildfires: What's Wrong and What Can Be Done?
By: Samantha Bernstein-Naples
Following the 2020 California wildfire season, the most active in recorded history, concerns surrounding the spread of wildfires have only heightened as 2021 becomes a record dry year, threatening to make for an even more destructive fire season. Wildfires have been ravaging California since 1932, devastating the environment, communities, homes and lives. The severity of the fire crisis is the result of a wide variety of factors ranging from candles to climate change. The California wildfires speak to the deeply harmful impacts of global warming as well as the human capacity to ignite disaster through carelessness and ignorance. By exploring the issue of wildfires we can achieve a greater understanding of what we as humans can improve upon to help both our fellow citizens and Mother Earth.
The overall magnitude of the wildfire problem facing California is evident in the tremendous harm that these flames wreak each year. On average, wildfires result in the burning of about 1,223,831 acres of land, the destruction of 1274 structures, and the expenditure of $590.4 million in suppression costs (Frontline Wildfire Defense System). Wildfires destroy the environment, leaving burnt wastelands in their wake and ruining the lives of citizens who lose their businesses, homes, and loved ones. A key example of this widespread devastation was the out-of-control campfire of November 2018, which quickly transformed into one of the most deadly wildfires in California’s history. The fire left 150,000 acres of land scorched, 19,000 structures destroyed, 85 people dead, and 27,000 without a home to return to. The threat of wildfires looms large and is only expected to grow. 30 million homes are currently at risk and it will take 220 billion dollars to repair just the structures that stand in extreme risk zones. In order to prevent the widespread damage that lies ahead if we continue down this same path of recklessness and carelessness, we must first understand the role that humans play in igniting the wildfires that cause horrific damage and loss.
(Paradise Elementary School left in ruins following the November 2018 wildfire)
85-90% of wildfires are the result of human activity and only about 10% are actually environmentally triggered (Frontline Wildfire Defense System). In Connecticut, the same mindlessness and carefree spirit held by some of our citizens, when applied to California, can have a catastrophic impact when paired with the state’s extremely dry climate. Common causes of wildfires include the burning of debris, pyrotechnic and electrical activity, discarded cigarettes, and campfires. A bonfire on the beach, firecrackers on the fourth of July, or a candle left burning can have heartbreakingly destructive consequences. In addition, the effects of global warming and climate change, processes that are largely driven by humans, have resulted in an extended fire season and thus heightened wildfire-related risk. Due to climate change, “[w]armer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire” (fire.ca.gov). The emission of greenhouse gases that we rely on for electrical as well as commercial and agricultural needs is driving climate change, which is, in turn sparking wildfires more frequently and over a wider window of time, wreaking unprecedented levels of destruction. Overall “the length of the fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days” (fire.ca.gov), leaving over two months more of the year that California residents and visitors are vulnerable to the harmful ramifications of wildfires. Global warming has influenced a number of aspects of California’s climate that are making it susceptible to greater numbers of wildfires. As of right now, “92% of the state is...under drought conditions;” California is also “70% below normal for total precipitation,” and “[t]he rainfall deficit is 50 inches below normal” (Gray, 2021). Dryer climate conditions paired with a lack of rainfall and careless human behavior make for a lethal combination, as the state’s vegetation becomes kindling for the next great fire to devastate the region. We must examine what we as citizens of the same planet can do to safeguard against the wildfires that have been destroying California and the overall steps that we can take to better take care of our Earth.
There are a number of measures that can be taken by those in California to combat the wildfires that threaten the lives of citizens and the well-being of our planet. Among these preventative steps are discontinuing the tradition of setting off pyrotechnics including fireworks and gender reveal bombs, disposing properly of smoking materials, refraining from driving vehicles off-road, keeping land free of all debris and monitoring candles at all times (onetreeplanted.org, 2020). In addition, the incorporation of fire-resistant plants such as lilac and fire retardant species such as aloe into one’s yard can help to further protect against wildfires. We as Connecticut residents can also take steps to help slow the effects of global warming and subsequently ensure that the fire season in California does not extend further and that California’s climate receives the moisture that it needs. Steps such as using or supporting businesses and corporations that use renewable energy, investing in energy-efficient appliances, reducing water waste, and conserving electricity (Denchak, 2017) could greatly help in the fight against climate change. Simply by being more aware of the impact that our actions can have on the environment, being more careful and conscientious, and making more responsible decisions related to energy emissions, we as humans can make tremendous strides towards establishing a healthier planet and a safer California free from the flames of wildfires.