California is on Fire. Literally.
Wildfires are raging across California at speeds faster than they can be contained, and something needs to be done about them.
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As the hurricane season winds down and it remains too early for states to start issuing blizzard warnings, California’s destructive reputation of raging wildfires comes into focus.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, 16 of California’s top 20 most destructive fires ever recorded have occured between the fall months of September and November. At the very top of this list is the wildfire that has plagued northern California since November 8, wiping out the entire community of Paradise and reaching the ends of other cities. More than 10,000 structures have been left in ruins, and over 70 people have been killed so far from this fire alone—more than double the number of structures destroyed and mortalities recorded than the second ranking fire on the list.
There is certainly a correlation between the mark of fall fires and the mark of record-breaking fires in California. As the season coincides with the end of the state’s dry season, in which most cities receive less than 10 percent of their annual average precipitation, much of California’s vegetation quickly dries out.
However, the fires currently storming across the state are not merely instances of the state’s yearly fires. With climate change at the root of rising temperatures and drier land, California is more vulnerable than ever to wildfires. This past July through September were the state’s hottest recorded months in over 100 years.
According to NASA, ice cores taken from Antarctica, Greenland, and tropical mountain glaciers have revealed that the Earth’s climate reacts to alterations in greenhouse gas levels. The evidence shows that global warming occurs about 10 times faster than it had after recovering from previous ice ages. These warmer temperatures and drier conditions simply make fires harder to put out, and they also cause an increase in insects that weaken or kill trees that build up fuel for fire.
Yet despite the statistics justifying the spike in wildfires, President Donald Trump has stated that “there is no reason for these massive, deadly, and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.” Additionally, so many lives have been lost due to these fires because of the “gross mismanagement of the forests,” he said.
Even after visiting California on November 17, Trump continued to repeat his view that forest management is the source of the massive wildfires. His view suggests that the state does not clean up after loggers who leave behind young trees and kindling, which are both very susceptible to fire.
Ultimately, Trump’s claim is misleading. While forest management does play a role in the spread of wildfires, the two major fires that are ripping through both ends of California—the Woolsey Fire in Ventura County, which is just west of Los Angeles in southern California, and the Camp Fire, which is raging across the northern part of the state—are not actually forest fires. Both fires began at areas with wildlife vegetation that were within the vicinity of populated cities. These areas are known as the wildland-urban interface, and they make it easier for fire to transfer from grasslands into neighborhoods.
In addition, Trump mentioned that there would be no more federal payments made to the state if it did not fix its wildfire issue. His statement indicates that California’s forests are not federally held. Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters, noted that Trump’s assertion is completely wrong, as federal agencies hold and manage more than 50 percent of California’s forests. Meanwhile, only a mere three percent are actually controlled by state and local agencies. Thus, because of the great amount of land owned by the federal government, spending on forestry has been reduced in recent years.
In the meantime, while people begin to realize that climate change is behind the unprecedented fires burning across California, action needs to be taken to plan for the future of the state.
California has to begin making its communities more resistant to the wildfires that the state is so prone to. According to the Sacramento Bee, the 21 fires in 2017 cost taxpayers over $1 billion a year and will take over 67 percent of the Forest Service’s budget by 2025. Of this 67 percent, $700 million will be taken from non-fire related programs like maintaining hiking trails.
While the state does need the funding to recover from these wildfires, it ultimately needs to be more proactive than reactive. One approach to the situation is to implement building regulations that require more fire-resistant materials, like tile roofs on structures in areas that are the most susceptible to damage from fire. The state needs to mandate that houses be built farther apart from each other and that they are built according to the latest building codes as well.
Californians also need to be more aware of where they choose to build their homes. If people continue to sprawl into areas within the wildland-urban interface, more lives and property will be at risk. However, for those already living in the interface, stronger alert systems and evacuation plans should be developed. This includes designating suburban communities and cities as high-risk fire zones if they are vulnerable.
In the end, more than just changing the way communities in California are constructed, the state needs to focus on preventive measures that will reduce global warming in the long run. The USDA reported that in the western U.S., an average annual one degree Celsius increase would raise the median burned area by 600 percent every year in certain forests. Therefore, if California continues to increase its use of greenhouse gases, much of its land will simply be left in debris.
For now, California is left to grieve over the 100,000 acres of land and multiple lives that have been lost due to the fires. When the wildfire season comes to an end, California must take part in precautionary changes to reduce the number of fires in upcoming years. Most importantly, the state must endeavor in the international effort to reduce the use of greenhouse gases. As the use of fossil fuels continues to add more heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere and the impacts of climate change continue to be exacerbated, the state will not see a change anytime soon.