Could the current California wildfires have been prevented?
- So far this year, there have been 7,012 fires, 1,514,687 acres burned, 7 fatalities, and 1,970 damaged structures in California.
- California’s climate is fire-prone. Because of a lack of rainfall and warmer temperatures in the summer, dried out vegetation serves as kindling for fires.
- 12,000 firefighters are currently battling the Lightning Complex and various other California wildfires, which is double the amount of firefighters deployed during the deadly 2018 Camp Fire.
- According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, about one-third of California’s air is unhealthy for the general population.
The growing danger of wildfires in California is, at least in part, an issue that could be mitigated. Though natural phenomena like lightning strikes are obviously beyond our control, a recent study estimates approximately 84% of fires are human-caused. Some of this cause lies in negligence or encroachment; some result from poor decision-making at the state and federal levels.
Human contributions to wildfires are numerous. At the local level, they include expensive homes built further and further into wilderness areas as well as homeless encampments at the fringes of society. Statewide in CA, the decision has been made to go all-in on green energy, and as a result, the power grid has not been maintained as necessary. The devastating 2018 Camp Fire was a direct result. Nationally, slashed budgets have prevented the US Forest Service from performing required work to clear brush and execute controlled burns to keep the fuel level down.
Then there's climate change. Say what you will about human contribution, our climate is changing, and in California that brings longer, hotter, drier summers. It also brings more intense winter storms. This results in the rapid growth of grasses and brush, which quickly wither in the heat, creating rife fuel for a fire. It also means significant storm run-offs during the snowmelt after a barn-busting winter, and CA is ill-equipped to utilize that run-off productively for fire-fighting or any other use. There is no singular fix, but it must be addressed nonetheless. Otherwise, California will continue to go up in flames every year, and how long will the population be able and willing to tolerate that?
While many of the wildfires California has faced in the past have been manmade and presentable—the result of poor infrastructure maintenance and irresponsible acts like arson—this most recent bout of fires have an unavoidable natural cause: weather. According to California Fire spokesman Steve Kaufmann, the wildfires currently raging across 1.1 million acres of the state are the result of approximately 12,000 lightning strikes, which occurred in the span of 72-hours, and sparking 585 fires.
Unfortunately, California's climate is dry and arid, making it susceptible to such blazes. Officials were particularly concerned about risk levels following the past winter's unseasonal dryness, which also means less available groundwater for fire-fighting. Fire suppression also hasn't helped matters. Wildfires are a natural occurrence; they help clean out dead brush and vegetation. When burned regularly, wildfires are usually manageable. However, a centuries-long practice of fire suppression means California's natural landscape is overgrown.
Notably, California does have an infrastructure problem. Electricity company PG&E's power lines already sparked one round of wildfires, thanks to a lack of maintenance. Their lines run through some of the highest-risk areas of the state. California's chronic water shortage problems are also a fire-risk. Wildfires destroy plants that keep moisture in the soil, contribute to erosion, and draw-down already tight groundwater supplies, making management all the more critical. But neither this nor poorly maintained infrastructure could have prevented the current fires. Better management of resources cannot entirely thwart rare weather events like lightning swarms.