California: A Hotbed for Wildfires

Evan Woo ‘22

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On November 8, 2018, early in the morning in California, a fire started under power transmission lines.  Just over ten minutes later, the fire already sprawled across ten acres. Authorities did their best to combat the rapidly spreading fire, but this proved difficult, as the roads were too narrow for fire trucks and the skies too windy for aircraft. This fire, ironically named the Camp Fire, would go on to kill 85 people and burn nearly the entire town of Paradise, CA to the ground.  In recent weeks, the Kincade Fire scorched nearly 80,000 acres of land, causing PG&E to shut off power for nearly 3 million people in order to try and mitigate the ravages of the fire. Additionally, almost the entirety of Sonoma County had to be evacuated. While it usually takes an enormous fire like the aforementioned Camp Fire to attract national attention, wildfires constantly plague California, especially during the fall season.

 

There are a multitude of factors that combine to make California such a fiery state.  In the fall, warm temperatures combined with strong winds and low humidity generate a perfect breeding ground for an astronomical number of fires.  The vegetation, usually parched following California’s scorching summers, acts as kindling and facilitates the rapid expansion of the fires. In 2018, there were 58,083 wildfires, which burned nearly 9 million acres of land.  Wildfires are nothing new though, as California has always been susceptible to these infernos. They constitute an important part of its ecosystems, most of which have evolved to burn frequently.

 

However, upon closer look at the stats, it becomes clear that something is not right with the recent wildfires.  The size and ferocity of today’s fires are bigger than ever, resulting in more land being burned. According to National Geographic, fifteen of California’s 20 largest fires have been in the 21st century, and the amount of land burned since the 1970s has increased by a factor of five.  The primary culprit is none other than climate change, as California has warmed by about 3 degrees in the past century, triple the global average. On top of the fact that the Golden State is heating up faster than average, its general geographical characteristics make it extra prone to the effects of a warming planet.  The hotter air dries out the plants and makes the fires stronger and faster than ever before. The increasing length of the fire season is one of climate change’s most detrimental effects. The state’s most damaging fires occur between the end of summer, when the vegetation is most dry, and the start of the winter rains.  The fire season has gotten longer and longer over the past decades, extending 75 days longer than was previously normal. Unfortunately, this is only predicted to worsen, as global warming has heavily affected precipitation cycles. California’s rains that have traditionally come in late October have come as late as November or December in recent years, adding crucial weeks to the peak fire season.

 

California has evidently felt the brutal effects of climate change harder than nearly anywhere else in America.  As Californians adjust to the reality of expecting the worst when it comes to fires and natural disasters, the rest of the world needs to take notice and do everything it can to combat climate change before it feels the effects next.

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/oct/28/california-wildfires-explained-climate-change

[2] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/10/climate-change-california-power-outage/#close

[3] https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-wildfires