California Wildfires: Why are They Happening?

Dawson Deng ’23

It seems like almost every year, California wildfires grow larger and larger. Every year, there’s a grim new record, whether for the greatest number of acres burned, the number of wildfires, the number of people killed, and so on.

The 2020 wildfire season has been one for the ages, with the combined wildfires burning a record-breaking four million acres of land, destroying 4,200 homes, and forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee the growing flames. This is because five of the ten largest fires in California history are burning right at this moment. Currently, the most concerning wildfire in the state is the Glass wildfire, which has decimated the Napa Valley region — burning nearly 60,000 acres of wine country — and is rapidly spreading, as firefighters have only contained 10% of the wildfire. Around the state, tens of thousands of firefighters are battling 24 wildfires simultaneously. To make matters worse, weather reports also say that the wind speeds are picking up in the following days, which will just add more fuel to the flames.

What makes California so special? Why is the Golden State seemingly always in flames? 

The answer lies in the state’s geography, which is in fact prone to erupting in flames. It has a generally dry and hot climate, while including just enough rainfall in its wet season so that there’s enough vegetation to burn. The vegetation, especially trees, also provide a more sustained burn than other greenery — grass, for instance. California in general also comprises a lot of people and infrastructure, so anything from a fuel explosion to people doing irresponsible things (over the top gender reveal parties, for example) can cause a small fire, which could eventually turn into a wildfire. 

The first thing a lot of people agree on when it comes to wildfires is that climate change is responsible for them. It’s easy to see where this comes from, as imagery of the blood orange skies, the burned and dessicated land, and the ash falling everywhere do seem to resemble the type of world that a lot of scientists say we are headed towards if we continue on this unsustainable path. There does seem to be a correlation between climate change and wildfires. The fact that nine out of ten of California’s hottest years were in the last two decades and over the same time, 9 of 10 of the largest wildfires in California history have taken place. This can be attributed to the fact that a warmer world will dry out ecosystems, allowing less runoff and moisture for the plants, as well as longer and more unpredictable “fire seasons”. Another explanation could be that it is sort of a Chernobyl — or cycle — effect where the burning of the trees is releasing the pent-up carbon in the trees into the atmosphere, thus accelerating climate change, which will further heat up the planet and then lead to more fires. But there are also other factors that should be taken into consideration. 

The second big factor is the overgrowth of vegetation. Forest fires actually are naturally occurring events in nature designed to help the forest thrive. These fires occur in places where detritus and other material from dead trees collect on the ground, thus blocking nutrition for many organisms as well as burying smaller or newer plants. Therefore, many plants require a fire in their life cycle in order to help remove the dead and decaying matter. The dead matter burned in these fires also serves a purpose, as the ash puts nutrients back into the soil and increases soil fertility. For thousands of years, people have facilitated  these small controlled burns to rid the forest of the detritus, which are often the fuel for the wildfires, helping to promote ecological health and prevent larger fires. But by ignoring the detritus and trying to limit the smaller fires, this allows a buildup of detritus which will eventually catch fire and cause a devastating wildfire if there is enough fuel or vegetation to burn.  In using prescribed burns, instead of a government reacting to whatever wildfire there is, it can actually take an active step in preventing and controlling many of the wildfires. The government, by partaking in prescribed burns, can limit the possibility of wildfires by taking away much of the fuel in the forests that provide the right condition for wildfires. However, this practice of controlled burns is often avoided by Californians for the strategy of fire suppression; essentially the method where they will wait until a fire starts to actually suppress it. This is due to the fact that prescribed fires take a lot of time and energy, as well as raise safety, environmental and smoke concerns. Hypothetically, even if California were to try to start controlled fires, they would have to make up for a century of neglected forests. Nearly 20 million acres of land around California haven’t had controlled burns or fuel reduction for nearly a hundred years. Now that over 50% of the California Forest service budget goes to fighting wildfires, there’s no way the forest is going to have available the people, time or resources to have monitored, controlled burns. However, without the burns, the fires are just going to grow bigger and bigger. The worst part  is that wildfires aren’t the same as naturally occurring or prescribed burns, as they will take away the forests but still leave the detritus and small vegetation, which will easily burn again. So instead of helping the ecosystem, the wildfires will just destroy  everything and come back later for more.

The last problem involves California itself. The state simply  isn’t doing enough; there needs to be more funding, as the state only gave $1 billion over five years for wildfire prevention, that is, to fund the millions of acres of forest that would need to be controlled burned(prescribed burns often cost between $200 and $1000). This is coupled with another “measly” 1 billion this year to combat the wildfires. However, this is just pennies compared to  what is needed; for example, the Wine Country Fires in 2017 would cost $9 billion in damages, and that is just one wildfire. While California has taken small actions, they are clearly not enough, and the real need for prescribed burnings is neglected  in favor of  more immediate concerns, such as the actual fires destroying millions of acres of land.

The wildfires are devastating and they are likely not going to go away any time soon. If California doesn’t act soon, they are only going to get worse.