A window into how weather patterns, climate change and human negligence have contributed to the devastation of the 2020 California wildfire season.
The morning of Sept. 9 felt ominous as I lay in bed, staring at a red sun hidden behind a strange fog that would continue for about a week. Blearily, I rolled out of bed to investigate. As I stepped outside, the acrid smell of smoke hit my nostrils like a strange but familiar wakeup call. Ash fell to the ground like snow, and I realized that the fires that had ravaged Northern California since early August had somehow managed to make it to my backyard in Los Angeles County.
I would soon become aware that the entire West Coast was covered in smoke. I cannot recall anything like this. As someone who has lived in various parts of California for their entire life, I couldn’t recall anything quite like this. I grew up watching the amber hills go up in smoke in the same way that hurricane season plagues the east coast each year, but never had I seen so much of California burn at the same time.
Between the August Complex of fires that covered a large part of Northern California in flames and the Bobcat and El Dorado fires that burned in the south, it wasn’t surprising that the New York Times called 2020 a record year for forest fires.
Joseph Hill, a retired firefighter that has worked California’s wildfire season as a municipal firefighter for 28 years, assured me that I was not wrong.
“Yes, there has always been a wildfire issue in California but obviously things have gotten a little crazier. Paradise for instance and Santa Rosa the year before. Those are huge, significant fires,” said Hill.
But even those feel like they weren’t as devastating as the fires this year. Maybe it’s because I am now older and more cognisant. However, my childhood memories of spending 4th of July in Lake Tahoe and being warned against lighting sparklers to prevent the spread of forest fires show that the fear of the destruction that a flame could cause was ingrained in me as a kid.
What I began to question was how fires could be so deadly. As I began my research, I soon discovered that not all wildfires are unwanted.
I directed my questions at Scott Kinnes, a biology professor at Azusa Pacifc University, to get a better understanding of how fire is ingrained in the Californian ecosystem.
“Fire has been a part of California history forever. These areas are basically designed to burn. It is very beneficial for native plants. Most of the native plants are capable of surviving or recovering from a fire. It includes the Redwood forests, Sequoia forests and the chaparral around here,” said Kinnes.
An example of this is the serotinous seed, which opens only when it is burned at a certain temperature. California is meant to survive fire, but the problem is that over time, these natural wildfires have grown too extreme because of external factors.
“Conditions like low humidity, high temperatures and Santa Ana winds make all other factors insignificant and the fires become worse. It creates dry fuel which burns better than wet fuel,” said Dr. Kinnes.
Additionally, dry thunderstorms throughout the Northern California region in late August only made matters worse. These storms, which bring lightning without any rain, are incredibly beautiful to observe but extremely dangerous in a region that is so prone to fire.
In other words, the weather, climate change and human negligence have all contributed to the creation of a perfect 2020 storm. With incidents like the gender reveal party in Palm Springs only adding salt to an already open wound.
“Our climate changes and it always has. Recently, we have seen warmer, dryer years but for decades we didn’t let forests burn,” Hill said.
Prescribed burning, which is when one purposefully burns an area in a controlled setting, ensures that future fires do not have too much dry fuel to sustain them. When a place does not burn for years, unburnt shrubbery creates a recipe for disaster problems.
Having grown up here, I know that forest fire management has long played a large role in state politics. According to Sacramento Bee, constituents within California such as landowners, state and federal workers are a part of a risk averse culture, which means that they want to avoid any type of risk. This is because people have built homes in areas that are at risk for fires.
Kinnes said that political environmentalists like Al Gore have caused problems because they did not have a scientific background and did not entirely understand that when managed, fire is not dangerous.
“There are parts of these hills that haven’t burned in 60-80 years. It’s been very hot here and the brush chaparral is very dry,” said David Dantic, a fire captain in Los Angeles County.
This is what happened in Paradise in 2018. The fires burned too hot too quickly for firefighters to be able to control it, resulting in the death of 85 people, 19,000 destroyed homes and 240 square miles of the California landscape that were laid to waste.
This fire broke my heart, as I had friends who went to school in the area and family members in the police force that were helping fight these fires.
“We have pushed our communities out into places full of wildlife. You didn’t use to have a population out in the wildlife interface. People are building these homes in a fire risk area and it is likely that people have not protected their home,” Hill said.
Fire captain’s like Dantic advise all California residents to be mindful of clearing the dry brush at least 100 ft. away from their homes, ensuring that there are no tree branches touching their roof and that there is no timber left near their homes, even if they live in areas where these practices are not mandated.
Climate change is also an inextricable factor that has contributed to the growing severity of wildfire seasons in recent years.
“Climate scientists have established that human driven global warming has contributed to and at least partially explain what we are looking at right now,” said Charles Chen, a professor of biology and chemistry at Azusa Pacific University.
Chen said the extremes of having both very dry and wet winters alternating are predicted to increase.
As a citizen of California, I hope to see improvements to reduce the risk of unpredictable fires, so that they can be mitigated in places where they should not occur. I want legislation to happen at a national level where prescribed burning is put into place and the removal of dead trees, brush and any possible fuel is both required and regulated.
“I would like to see politics not push how fires are managed in California. I would rather see science and experience save the day,” Hill said.
As someone who has slowly watched California fires get worse and the lovely native trees and plants suffer in their wake, my only wish is that we put our differences aside and listen to those who have fought fires and studied them scientifically.