Why Does California Have So Many Wildfires?
As if the COVID-9 pandemic is not enough, a record number of forest fires have occurred in California this summer. It is hard to pick up a newspaper these days, or turn on the television news, without reading about one of the 30+ fires devastating the state. Millions of acres of forest growth have burned to the ground, homes and other structures destroyed and the saddest part, human lives have been lost. And this epic year for wildfires has occurred BEFORE the typical forest fire season of October and November even starts. As California governor Gavin Newsom has stated, “This is a challenging year. It is historic in terms of magnitude, scope and consequence.”
With the acreage size of the fires burning being larger than some states in the northeast U.S. we at The Gifted Tree keep getting this type of question: What are the forces driving this record fire year? Fire experts say it’s not one thing causing the shocking series of infernos. “It’s a perfect storm of factors that have all come together,” said Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Sequoia National Park. We thought it would be educational to take a brief oversight of the factors that are contributing to this unprecedented string of wildfires.
One of the difficulties when it comes to mitigating wildfires in California is that, in recent decades, an increasing amount of the state is vulnerable. As the NY Times reported, “the engineering and land management that enabled the state’s tremendous growth have left it more vulnerable to climate shocks. While California is one of America’s marvels, by moving vast quantities of water and suppressing wildfires for decades, the state has transformed its arid and mountainous landscape into the richest, most populous and bounteous place in the nation. But that growth comes with a prices.
It’s counter intuitive, but the U.S.’s history of suppressing wildfires has actually made present-day wildfires worse. According to Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, “For the last century we fought fire, and we did pretty well at it across all of the Western United States. And every time we fought a fire successfully, that means that a bunch of stuff that would have burned didn’t burn. And so over the last hundred years we’ve had an accumulation of plants in a lot of areas. And so in a lot of California now when fires start, those fires are burning through places that have a lot more plants to burn than they would have if we had been allowing fires to burn for the last hundred years.” This legacy of fire suppression and lack of good forest stewardship has led to a growth of highly flammable shrubs and bushes, a huge buildup of fuels and debris.
As the New York Times reports, in an effort to protect homes and encourage new building, governments for decades focused on suppressing fires that occurred naturally, allowing the buildup of vegetation that would provide fuel for future blazes. Even after the drawbacks of that approach became clear, officials remained reluctant to reduce that vegetation through prescribed burns, wary of upsetting residents with smoke or starting a fire that might burn out of control.That approach made California’s forests more comfortable for the estimated 11 million people who now live in and around them. But it has also made them more susceptible to catastrophic fires.
Climate change creating heat waves
In recent years, California’s climate has gotten hotter and drier. This combination of conditions mean less snowpack in the Sierras, less runoff in the spring, and less moisture for vegetation. These conditions have made it especially easy for massive wildland fires to ignite and quickly burn through parched vegetation. According to the NY Times, nine of the 10 largest fires in the state’s history have occurred in the past ten years, and it’s no coincidence that nine of the ten hottest years on record have happened since 2000. In August, while it is still being evaluated, Death Valley in Southern California possibly reached the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on earth. Last Labor Day Weekend brought one of California’s hottest periods ever observed. Extreme heat means drier vegetation, and more difficulty putting out fires.
The effects of the greenhouse gases humans produce underlie everything that occurs in the atmosphere, and the tendency of climate change to make dry places drier over time is a warning of a fiery future. And the state’s fire season has gotten considerably longer, too, extending up to 75 days, in some cases. In reality, “fire season” is a remnant of cooler world. “It just gets harder to predict,” Faith Kearns, of the University of California Institute for Water Resources in Oakland, told National Geographic. “We used to have a much more reliable rainy season and fire season, and a lot of variables are just shifting at the moment.”
Unusual Weather Conditions
A dry winter last year is a contributing factor. Snowpack in the mountains was very low and actual rainfall was at or below normal. When California has dry winters, moisture levels dry up earlier in the summer in grasses, shrubs and trees. Fires start more easily and spread faster. Furthermore, this historic stretch of drought has caused millions of dead trees. The drought leaves a legacy on the landscape of fire fuel that persists for many years, even after the drought is over.
Additionally, in mid-August, a series of freak summer storms blasted California with more than 14,000 lightning strikes and almost no rain. More than one-third of all the acres that have burned this year came from that lightning. And don’t forget about the Santa Sana winds which run from October through April. These strong gusts, which bring dry air into Southern California tend to spread fires even faster than what we are experiencing now, and burn closer to urban areas, moving embers and spreading fires.
While lightening strikes have started many of the forest fires in August, more often than not, humans are responsible for igniting the fires. “California has a lot of people and a really long dry season,” Williams said. “People are always creating possible sparks, and as the dry season wears on and stuff is drying out more and more, the chance that a spark comes off a person at the wrong time just goes up. And that’s putting aside arson.”
There’s another way people have contributed to wildfires: in their choices of where to live. People are increasingly moving into areas near forests, known as the urban-wildland interface, that are inclined to burn. Thus, California’s large population and the need to inhabit more fire prone areas means that when disasters do strike, they affect large numbers of people and property.
Needless to say, the wildfire situation in California is complex, one which does not produce simple, easy answers. While climate change is certainly a major factor in the increase in California wildfires, ultimately, determining the links between any individual fire and climate change takes time and analysis. But the effects of the greenhouse gases humans produce underlie everything that occurs in the atmosphere, and the tendency of climate change to make dry places drier over time is a warning to the West of a fiery future.
Some possible solutions? More forest thinning, better building codes, more renewable energy, a more robust power grid, experts say. Some suggest the state needs to rethink the way it fights fires, from response to planning, which would take the entire restructuring of a system. Prescribed burns and forest-thinning are, again, options to protect some communities from wildfires. “Technically, we have all the tools to do this,” UC Berkeley forest ecologist and climate change scientist Patrick Gonzalez says. “The more that people realize that proactive fire management can avoid the catastrophic wildfires … the more people hopefully will favor proactive fire management.”
But the reality is any and every action California is taking so far is incremental. Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory in New York stresses, “No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear, climate is really running the show. Fundamentally, the main solution to a lot of the fire problems that we have [is] taking action on climate change. To be carbon-free is the ultimate end goal, and the sooner we reach that, the better it will be for nature and for people.”
In the short term? Be careful with fire. Understand how to reforest areas after devastating wildfires. Plant more trees in California (The Gifted Tree has a number of planting projects) and other areas in the United States in a smart way to help regrow the areas lost to wildfires. And pray for rain.