California Wildfires: What Does Climate Change Have to Do With It?

By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah

Paradise, California. A small town right near California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. A true paradise, indeed. Tall pines and majestic oaks tower over the Northern Californian town as its residents relish in the beauty of their, well, paradise.

But all of a sudden, it burned down. Everything. Their homes. Their churches. Their schools. Those tall pines and majestic oaks that towered over them were gone, replaced by the dance of wildfires over the once glorious town.

And, in the worst cases, their friends, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents—could not escape. Their beautiful Paradise had betrayed them. It had become Hell.

The horrible, horrible case of Paradise is agonizingly ironic given the town’s name. But its situation is nowhere near unique. Dozens of cities and towns in California have been engulfed by raging flames or have been evacuated. And I don’t use the word “raging” lightly. California’s wildfire season in 2017 was already the most destructive in its recent history, burning 9.1 million acres of land.

And somehow, it seems to have become even worse.

2018’s “Camp Fire” engulfing Butte County, California was the worst in the state’s history. Together with the Woolsey Fire that consumed parts of Los Angeles County and Ventura County, nearly 9,000 homes have been destroyed, 52,000 people have been evacuated, and almost 60 people have perished with many still unaccounted for.

The worst part? It could get even worse. As climate change worsens, these fires are expected to become stronger, taking more lives, homes, and devastating whole communities.

Wait a minute, back up. What does climate change have to do with all of this? Well, it plays a major role, but it’s not the only factor to blame.

Kimberly Amadeo of The Balance wrote a very good article on how the alteration of the global climate is creating stronger wildfires. The four effects of climate change that strengthen such devastating fires are:

  • Rising Temperatures
  • Drought
  • More Pests
  • Shorter Winters

You can read about the specifics by clicking the link above, but in summation, they all, in some way, cause trees to become more flammable. By drying up or eating away at their vegetation, allowing wildfires to get stronger and stronger. Rising temperatures also allow a fire to continue for longer.

I was shocked to see that even the presence of more pests (caused by warmer temperatures) would lead to longer periods of infestation. Those pests devour the trees’ vegetation, exposing the flammable timber.

As you are probably already aware, climate change worsens with increasing global greenhouse gas emissions. Wildfires will continue to terrorize towns and cities. We’ve examined the effects of these raging fires on towns like Paradise; moreover, the fires will completely transform and possibly corrode the environments that they pillage.

Oh, and by the way, wildfires in and of themselves make climate change worse by releasing a LOT of carbon into the atmosphere and destroying forests that would otherwise absorb the atmospheric carbon.

It is important to note that climate change doesn’t create a wildfire season.

Those are always going to happen. It does, however, make the season longer and worse.

Alright, timeout. Let’s say that you don’t really believe in the mainstream climate change theory. You think its effects are exaggerated. Or you think America is already doing enough to curb it. Or you think we need to do something else about these fires right now.

Fine. Here are the other major factors I alluded to earlier.

Forest management. Suppression has long been and still is the preferred method for managing wildfires. It includes using several different tactics to contain and extinguish wildfires. But recently, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley have found that managing wildfires, instead of putting the fires out, is superior to fire suppression.

“When fire is not suppressed,” said graduate student Gabrielle Boisramé, who was the first author of the study, “you get all these benefits: increased streamflow, increased downstream water availability, increased soil moisture, which improves habitat for the plants within the watershed. And it increases the drought resistance of the remaining trees and also increases the fire resilience because you have created these natural firebreaks.”

Allowing fires to burn parts of forests reduces the ecosystem’s demand. Despite the evidence, however, these wildfire management practices have yet to be or are poorly implemented. Instead, forests grow and grow and grow to the point where some trees are just straight-up junk. In the context of a wildfire, this is just more fuel.

“[Forest firefighters] have been suppressing a lot,” says Heritage AP Environmental Science teacher Kara Norris, “and then they just let things build up. The same scenario happened in Yellowstone National Park in the 1980s. It ended up burning immense amounts of the park.”

Improper forest management practices coupled with warmer, drier air have been major catalysts in creating stronger wildfires. But that’s not all. Remember Butte County, the county that was hit by the Camp Fire? Their electrical system, PG&E, started sparks that are speculated to have started the fire, says Norris.

“PG&E has had that problem before,” Norris importantly notes. “They’ve been sued for their electrical lines being faulty. That’s another contributing factor: besides the climate change, our use of electricity and our infrastructure not being up to par.”

Combine these three factors together, and you have enough fuel for a major, life-altering, unadulterated fire.

“A lot of this is manmade—just maybe not in the traditional way we think,” Norris remarks. Being an environmental science teacher, Norris knows the major effect that climate change has had on California’s wildfire season, but also cites “multiple factors” that are causing the unfathomable wildfires we see.

So…this is depressing. So many human beings are perishing, and it seems that there’s nothing we can do about it. Families are being broken apart—or are destroyed altogether. Where’s our government when we need them?

While there are things we can do, such as limiting our electricity use and spreading awareness about this issue, several major steps will have to be taken by local and state governments in California, as well as the federal government.

Whether it’s improving our decrepit infrastructure, taking more steps to curb climate change, or updating forest managements practices, it’s up to our nation to unite (for once) to prevent these fires from getting worse.

 

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