Why Is California On Fire?
The Jones Fire in Lowell, Oregon, in 2017. Fire season has become the norm in the Western U.S. due to climate change. | Marcus Kauffman / Unsplash

As deadly wildfires continue to burn on the West Coast of the U.S. in Oregon, Washington, and California, California Gov, Gavin Newsom has said that “the debate is over around climate change.”

“This is a climate damn emergency,” he told reporters as he viewed fire damage in Northern California. “This is real and it’s happening.” 

According to the interactive map Fire Weather Avalanche, there are currently more than 1,700 fires burning across the U.S., primarily in Western states. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that around 4.5 million acres have been burned in recent weeks.

Fire officials have assigned groupings—”complexes”—to the smaller fires in order to prioritize and coordinate their work. One of these, the SCU Lightning Complex, burned more than 365,000 acres as of last Wednesday in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Many of the fires were ignited by a dry lightning storm, also concentrated in the Bay Area. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the region experienced almost 11,000 strikes over just three days.

Smoke from the burning fires has caused significant air pollution. Obscuring the sun in several areas and turning the sky dark orange. The North Complex fire has been burning since August 18. California has now seen more than 20 confirmed deaths from wildfires overall within the last month.

At least 650 distinct wildfires have burned more than 1.25 million acres of California since August 15. The state has seen six of the 20 largest fires on record in 2020, while in Oregon’s annual wildfires have had almost twice the impact on the local environment as in previous years.

And this is just this year. In 2019, 7,860 fires burned a total of 259,823 acres in the state, setting records for total acres burned and damage. The worst year before that? 2018.

Wildfires have become more than just a season for California and other Western states, but a lifestyle. They are more predictable than earthquakes—and more deadly. This is the new normal. So how did we get here?

What Causes Wildfires?

Wildfires are a natural part of California’s ecology. Naturally occurring fires remove decaying trees, plants, and shrubs, and support new growth. But some forms of human intervention—such as localized firefighting on smaller blazes—have contributed to the current overabundance of fuel.

The significant size, duration, and impact of the current, ongoing wildfires are due to several factors. California has now endured two decades of severe drought. Culminating in a record-breaking heatwave that peaked in August of this year.

Extensive drought and yearly heatwaves have killed and dried out millions of trees, creating ideal fuel for annual forest fires. Many of the locations currently experiencing wildfires—such as coastal forests—rarely ignite during the summer months, but the extreme weather conditions have led to optimum conditions across usually diverse ecosystems.

“The scope [of the damage] is absolutely astonishing,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA told Scientific American. “[It’s] hard to impress on people just how vast the acreage burned is, especially considering there were no strong offshore winds.”

Upcoming strong autumn winds and other natural factors could spread the flames even further. Each fall, the Santa Ana winds blow from the Great Basin area in the West to Southern California. These winds typically also dry out vegetation and blow any existing embers around, spreading the flames farther.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also significantly increased the difficulty of controlling the wildfires and organizing evacuation processes. While the fires themselves increase the risk to firefighters and evacuees alike and respiratory damage from smoke inhalation can make people more vulnerable to the virus.

In general, the significant majority of California’s wildfires are started by human sources such as campfires and fallen power lines. The recent dry lightning storm struck after California experienced some of the highest temperatures ever recorded. Highs reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit on August 16 in Death Valley.

Why Is California On Fire?
West coast fires are getting larger and more severe. | Karsten Winegeart / Unsplash

How Does Climate Change Increase Fires?

Californians experience wildfires annually. But the severity and impact of these periodic blazes have increased year-on-year. The extreme heat, drought, lack of precipitation, and other increasingly extreme weather conditions experienced by California have been linked by experts to climate change.

According to Swain, increased temperatures, less dependable rainfall, and fast-melting snow all contribute to dry soil and flora. Additionally, climate change is affecting the quantity of moisture in the air itself. Which is also a factor in how forest fires burn.

According to Cal Fire, the quantity of land burned between August 17 and 23 is greater than 2018’s total. It is more than double the land burned in 2017. Increasing overall temperatures are already contributing to extended fire seasons, too.

“It’s not just how hot are the heat waves; it’s how hot is it the rest of the time,” Swain told Vox. “What really matters is the sustained warming and drying over seasons and years.”

Projections by the USDA predict that an average annual increase of one degree C would increase the median burned land by up to 600 percent in some areas of western states. While climate change is predicted to significantly increase the likelihood of lightning-ignited wildfires, in particular.

Once ignited, increased overall temperatures contribute to both the spread and resilience of wildfires, making them significantly harder to manage and extinguish. According to the EPA, California’s climate has warmed by approximately three degrees F in the last 100 years.

Why Are Wildfires Getting Worse?

Overall, the planet’s average surface temperature has increased by approximately 2 degrees F during the last century. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human emissions and activities caused 100 percent of the global warming observed since 1950.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas were responsible for 76 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Animal agriculture and the meat industry also contribute to global warming, and beef production, in particular, has a significant carbon footprint.

January 2020 was the warmest January since record-keeping began in 1880. Global land temperatures were the warmest on record, while ocean temperatures were the second warmest. This year has also seen an unprecedented increase in wildfires globally, including the second half of Australia’s battle with the largest bushfire on record.

Areas in central Asia and even the Arctic have also seen worse fires than usual. In 2019, Indonesia, North America, Siberia, and the Amazon also experienced intense wildfires. In general, climate change is contributing to shifts in weather patterns—such as reduced precipitation—which exacerbate wildfires.

“Climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions”, said the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in 2019. “Through influencing temperature, environmental moisture, weather patterns, and fuel conditions.”

Climate change and global warming have led to an increase in wildfires around the world. But increasing wildfires also contribute to climate change, in turn, through carbon dioxide production. Without rapid and effective action to mitigate climate change, the cycle of worsening wildfires and global warming will continue.

What Can We Do About It?

There are ways to reduce the starting, spread, and damage of wildfires. First and foremost—as up to 84 percent of fires in the U.S. are started by human sources—is to be mindful of fire hazards and the risk of ignition. Fully extinguishing fire pits, as well as any cigarettes or matches, is essential when in high-risk areas.

Effective land and forest management also reduce the risk of wildfires catching and spreading. But in areas such as the Western U.S., the sheer scale means that large, remote areas of wilderness remain unmanaged. Currently, management emphasizes woodland areas that border populated areas.

Forward planning for evacuation and recovery can also help wildfire management. As would increased resource allocation for firefighting and fire prevention.

In terms of climate change—arguably the key factor in the current wave of wildfires—there are several things that individuals can do to make changes. Recycling, and using water and energy in an economical and environmentally conscious manner can make a significant impact.

By emphasizing more sustainable forms of transportation—where possible—such as walking, cycling, and public transportation, individuals can drastically reduce their carbon footprint. Eschewing frequent flying, a particularly significant contributor to climate change also makes a big difference.

But according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), cutting back on animal products is the most important way to mitigate global warming. The largest-ever food production analysis confirms this, and suggests that adopting a vegan diet is “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”