Why the West Coast has been blazing this year
by Breanna Beers
It’s been said that California’s four seasons are riot, earthquake, flood and fire. As cynical as this may be, the last of these has been raising international concern for the past few months.
For the past several years, California has been plagued by drought, which combines with the region’s intense heat and coastal winds to produce an ideal climate for the start and spread of wildfires. According to the California state website, as of Aug. 26, there have been 4,434 fires recorded and almost 900,000 acres consumed this year. Although the total number of fires is comparable to the same interval last year, the number of acres consumed has nearly quadrupled.
Cassidy Wilkinson, a sophomore nursing student from Los Angeles, was evacuated from her home in early May because of an approaching wildfire.
“Where my house is, it backs up right on a mountain, and California’s great for being dry and hot,” Wilkinson said. “So a lot of car fires will start right there, and the cars will overheat and they’ll pull over and then set the hill on fire.”
To a certain extent, biology professor Dr. Mark Gathany said, wildfires are a natural and essential part of the California ecosystem.
“Those systems require fire to be maintained,” Gathany said, “because if we don’t burn them, fuel just keeps building until the lightning strikes and then you have a huge fire.”
However, the situation in California this year goes beyond the expectations for the typical summer fire season. Tens of thousands of firefighters have been working on the blazes, with long days and little relief, aided by additional manpower from across the United States and several countries. Despite the intense pressure, Wilkinson said, these men and women are incredibly effective, prioritizing human life and safety above all else.
“They’re always really quick,” Wilkinson said. “They’re super good at alerting everybody when to get out. It’s not often that someone is stuck in their home because they didn’t hear about a fire. … They’re really selfless and willing to put their lives on the line for people and to protect their homes. That’s their number-one goal.”
Wilkinson said evacuations because of fires happen “a few times every few months,” usually forecast by the helicopters rising above the smoke on the horizon. But while Wilkinson has grown used to the occasional dangers of the southern California climate, she puts the wildfires happening further upstate in a separate category altogether.
“The fires are pretty common, so it doesn’t really affect me anymore because I’ve lived there my whole life,” Wilkinson said. “But the fires that are happening in northern California, like in Redding, those are way more intense. Obviously, homes have burned down and people have died, so that’s something that’s been on our mind a lot since we love our state and it’s hard to see so many people losing their lives.”
In Northern California, the Carr fire alone has raged across 230,000 acres, destroyed or damaged nearly 2,000 buildings and killed six people, including three firefighters. Now 96 percent contained, the Carr fire is the sixth most destructive blaze in state history.
According to Gathany, the ecology of the northern and southern regions of the state explains the varied frequency and intensity of the fires. While Southern California typically has a greater frequency of fires, the north is currently experiencing more intense, raging blazes, despite the area’s usual relative stability.
“All of the different grasslands, shrublands, forests of all kinds are very different systems,” Gathany said. “We talk often about fire return intervals. … In the more southwest U.S. our returns are typically two to 10 years in one location. So you would expect to see more [fires], because they’re growing more grasses and shrubs there. As you go up further north — so, as you get into Yosemite, which has a big fire active right now — those places would be expected to be burning [at a return interval of] multiple decades to centuries, just because of the nature of the system: the weather, the climate, the trees that are typical up in there, how long it takes them to accumulate that much fuel to get started.”
According to Gathany, dry, abundant fuel is the significant factor that allows these massive fires to happen. And the reason that fuel remains so abundant? It’s a combination of California’s historical policy and current climate.
In the early 1900s, the Forest Service implemented a policy of no-exceptions fire suppression, characterized by the iconic Smoky Bear. However, Gathany said, fires are not only a natural part of the California ecosystem, but an essential one. Small, periodic fires can clear shrubs and brush, keeping fuel to a minimum and preventing larger blazes from appearing later.
The Forest Service moved away from that policy in the mid-1980’s, focusing on minimizing and containing fires rather than extinguishing them immediately. However, Gathany said California may still be experiencing the last knock-on effects of the old, misguided fire suppression practices.
“We’re still in that fire return interval for a lot of these places that have been impacted by that fire suppression activity,” Gathany said. “So there’s a lot more fuel than would be typical, so we should expect some more damaging fires than as would be typical as we’re sort of coming out of that phase.”
According to this explanation, there may be hope that in future years, once the fires have run their course, there may be a return to normal levels or even a decrease in fire activity. However, there is a second component to the severity of fires: the California drought. According to Gathany, the accumulated effect of so many dry years in a row may have combined with the higher-than-average temperatures of 2018 to produce this worse-than-average year of fires.
“California’s been in a pretty consistent drought phase for the last one or two decades, so that’s been accumulating,” Gathany said. “There are cycles to these things, and I know we have things tipping the scales with climate change too, things that make it not certain if we ever come out of this drought phase or if this is just the new normal for them.”
In the western United States, it is not rain that brings the much-needed water supply, but snow. According to weather records, from May through August, Los Angeles received exactly zero days of rain, and this is not unusual for the region. Instead, California relies on meltwater from mountain snow, which filters into reservoirs to supply the cities.
“If there’s no snow there’s no snowpack, there’s no melt, there’s no reservoir,” Gathany said. “That’s why they watch the weather really carefully over the winter in particular. It doesn’t really rain in the summer to speak of, but it’s the snow that melts in.”
Though the dry climate, abundant fuel and coastal winds are what consistently allow fires to catch and spread quickly, the actual spark that starts a fire can come from a variety of sources. Fires can start because of lightning strikes or other natural causes, but more often, Wilkinson said, it is human sources that initiate the blazes, intentionally or accidentally.
Wilkinson described one situation in which an overheated car pulled over in a secluded, heavily wooded area, then exploded, starting a blaze. Fires have also been caused by sparks from a hammer strike and other accidental sources.
Sometimes, however, fires are not so accidental. While it’s hard to verify the source of a spark, arson has been linked to several of California’s fires. During particularly bad fire seasons, arsonists are often emboldened to be even more active, because firefighters are spread thinner across the region.
“I think trouble brings trouble,” said Wilkinson. “For people … who love fire, when they see a fire they think it would be cool to then distract firemen and start another fire, or just start one because that’s what brings them pleasure.”
However, despite the disasters back home, Wilkinson expressed hope and trust in God’s faithfulness.
“Fires are gonna happen; it’s definitely something you live with,” Wilkinson said. “It’s hard a little bit, but, I don’t know, you kind of always go back to God being in control, and controlling the controllables.”
Breanna Beers is a sophomore molecular and cellular biology major and the interim off-campus news editor for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting “The Princess Bride” whether it’s relevant or not.