Torrents of red engulf their surroundings, destroying everything they know and love and hold dear to their hearts. Whole lives spent in areas deemed home being abandoned in seconds, all in the name of survival. An apocalyptic scene, a never ending war–consuming lives and resources–with nature. Though it may sound dystopian, it is unfortunately the everyday reality for millions of residents of the Golden State of California.
A fundamental part of California’s climate, wildfires are the norm for these citizens. Yet, the horrifying experiences many have had to undergo in the past year alone are incomparable to anything of the past. The entire wildfire season of 2018 was the most destructive season on record. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a whopping 153,336 acres were destroyed in November 2018 alone on top of 85 fatalities – the most for any fire in the history of the state. The other tormenting fires of this year also make the list with the July 2018 Carr Fire harboring damage of 229,651 acres in the state. What’s even more concerning is that all these statistics mildly beat out all the last records that were all made last year in 2017 at the hands of what most believe to be the main culprit – climate change.
The state has a distinct wet and dry season, which usually somewhat overlap each other. From late spring to early autumn the region gathers its annual precipitation, but recently the amount of precipitation has decreased substantially. This has allotted the vegetation to become more dry early on, meaning more fuel for wildfires. It’s also worth mentioning that last year there was record rainfall for the state – the most ever seen – meaning this year there was a heavy amount of vegetation to serve as fuel. Overall, the wet season has been eclipsed by the dry season this year, as evidenced by a record hot summer. Furthermore, the changes in climate have impacted offshore winds in California – the main driving force of the wildfire season.
There are two types of offshore winds in California: the northern Diablo and southern Santa Ana winds. When high pressure develops in the fall due to the dry air, these winds begin to kick in. Their power allows them to propel already existing wildfires or man-made fires and turn them into catastrophes by spreading them out over large areas and increasing their strength against fire fighting forces. When these winds are stronger and arrive earlier than needed, the effect is distrasous.
California’s wildfire season can be separated into two parts: autumn and summer. Though both consist of destructive fire, they differ in length and location. The autumn fires blow toward the coasts near major cities and are more dangerous and economically damaging in this sense. The summer fires can occur in any part of the state and usually last longer. Either way, climate change has hastened the increase of both types of fires and their severity.
In the latter part of 2018, the first of the major fires was the Carr Fire of northern California. The Carr Fire, caused by a vehicle accident, began on July 23rd. It damaged a total of 229,651 acres, including 1079 structures, and resulted in eight fatalities. Because it was a very difficult blaze to contain, it became the 7th most destructive fire in California’s history; it was not fully contained until the end of August. Through its course it caused multiple areas to be evacuated, such as Yosemite National Park. The Carr Fire is said to have created its own weather system of sorts with “firenado,” remarkable yet terrifying structures that engross even more damage upon on an area.
Around the same time the Carr Fire was going down its path of terror, the Mendocino complex fire raged on near Los Angeles. The complex fire was a pair of fires within a vicinity of each other, and in total they damaged over 400,000 acres. It was contained until late September 2018.
The destruction of the wildfire season was just taking its toll with the Carr and Mendocino fires. It would only be later on that the Camp Fire of November 2018 would really dethrone every other fire that ever existed in California state history.
Almost immediately after the Thousand Oaks shooting, the Camp Fire erupted, resulting in 85 fatalities, with several hundred missing people still accounted for. It’s cost the state an estimate of 7.5 to 10 billion dollars in damage. The small town of Paradise, home to 26,000, was left in ruins. Fires such as Camp Fire had left the state in a state of hazardous air quality until the end of November, with some areas still coping with such conditions.
Though nowhere near as destructive, at the same time Camp Fire was going on the Woolsey Fire was tormenting people in Southern California, near Los Angeles. The Woolsey Fire came so close to urban development that the site of the HBO series Westworld was burned down. Hundreds of thousands of people had to be evacuated including the coveted town of Malibu. Based on Cal Fire released statistics, an outstanding estimated total of 1.4 million acres of California land have been burned in the past year alone.
In response to the ever growing threat to California, President Trump responded in a tweet, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!” However, the conflict goes deeper than simply forest management.
There are a multitude of factors affecting the proliferation of wildfires recently, the biggest being climate change. According to Dr. Park Williams, “…behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming.” Irregular weather patterns have made California more fire prone and increased the amount of dry vegetation, a major source for all wildfires. On top of all of this, climate change elevates the power of winds, another major force. What’s more alarming is that if humans don’t clean up their act, it is predicted that these fires will only get worse and worse.
However, it is true that fires cannot only be attributed to climate change. Current habits also resulted in this worse season. Urban development keeps occurring in areas where fires are prevalent, feeding right into the problem. Staying away is the opposite of where real estate in California is headed. In addition, most of these 84% of these fires are caused by humans.
Our actions have consequences. The same things will occur next year and the year after if we don’t attempt to look for any solutions. It’s a reminder to seek resolve against climate change.