In the past week, both the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the famed Getty Center have been threatened by flames. While both locations escaped damage, the 2019 California wildfire season is far from over, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency. Amid the destruction of so many homes and lives, there are lessons the country can learn.
So far, 540 structures have been damaged or destroyed from fires like the Kincade Fire in Sonoma county and the Getty Fire in Los Angeles. Last year’s wildfire season devastated towns like Paradise, California, ultimately damaging over 23,145 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s website. 2018 was the both the deadliest and most destructive fire season in California’s history.
The threat of wildfire comes with living in the beautiful state. However, climate change will only make the danger grow. The 2019 season may not surpass the horror of 2018. That does not mean 2020 will be even more destructive than 2018 and establish a pattern of consistent, record-breaking years like we have seen with the overall temperature of the planet.
Why California Is A Tinderbox
Part of California’s appeal is its climate, which is different all across the state, from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevadas to Los Angeles. Much of the region, however, gets little precipitation in the summer. The lack of rain combined with near constant sun and heat slowly dries out vegetation.
The state is still recovering from a drought which lasted from 2011 until 2017. Californians saw their water use limited as reservoirs dried up. Plants dried up and fields became empty. California slowly dried out, until much needed rain began to fall in the last several years. Water restrictions are still in place, however, even with the drought being over.
The California wildfire season is believed to not just be one season. A 2015 study suggested that there are two distinct fire seasons in a year, one lasting from June to September and the other from October until about December. The latter is defined by the Santa Ana winds and fires are more likely to happen on the coast, much like the fires burning this very moment.
The Santa Ana winds occur every year in Southern California. They are currently the strongest they have ever been all decade, prompting the National Weather Service to declare a rare, “extreme red flag warning” for the area. The winds are often referred to as “devil winds” and for good reason.
The high winds pick up burning embers and start new wildfires over a mile away. In both Los Angeles county and Ventura, wind gusts have reached up to 60 mph. Those dangerously high winds combined with very dry air have helped fuel the widespread wildfires across the state. The fires move so fast with the Santa Anas’ help that it is difficult to know exactly where and when flames will spread.
How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
Climate change will only increase the intensity of these wildfires, much like it strengthens hurricanes and other natural disasters. The U.S. Global Change Research Program released a report shortly after last year’s deadliest fires. In it, they linked a warmer global temperature to an increase in the number of wildfires.
As Earth’s temperature continues to rise, conditions will get drier and, “are projected to increase the risk of wildfires,” according to the report. It is a simple concept: the hotter the temperature, the more vegetation will dry out. Climate change will increase the ground fuel that feeds quick-moving fires. With the help of the Santa Ana winds, more fires will spread out from one initial spark.
More wildfires will not just affect the lives of Californians and others who live in wildfire-prone regions. Agriculture and tourism are just two of national industries that will be hurt by more fires. “Increased wildfire driven by climate change,” the report says, “is projected to increase costs associated with health effects, loss of homes and other property, wildfire response, and fuel management.”
Where Do We Go From Here
We created climate change, yet it is not the only thing to blame for increased wildfire activity. The human population is constantly increasing and spreading out and our imprint on the land is helping start some of the worst fires. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric confirmed this past February that its equipment most likely caused the fire that destroyed Paradise, California.
Investigators currently believe the Getty Fire was sparked when a tree branch fell onto power lines. While the nation watches as Californians’ homes and livelihoods are destroyed, we must ask how we have contributed to the problem. Climate change needs to become the single, most important issue in the United States.
The Earth is not going to be fixed in the next decade. It will take years of commitment, sacrifice and ingenuity to reverse the detrimental effects mankind has had on our home. However, if we do not act, we are condemning our species to die. Natural disasters will only get stronger and more frequent, costing not just more money, but more lives.
California can try and build more fire-resistant buildings, like the Getty, particularly since wildfire is a common, natural occurrence there. If the nation does not treat climate change like the apocalyptic issue it is, this may be the only chance of protecting homes and history. Yet, the best advice, in my opinion, comes not from science, but from Smokey Bear: only you can prevent wildfires. It is time we stop watching in horror as California burns every year and start working together to save the planet.