An ongoing event that has been reported in the news lately has consisted of the unprecedented severity of the recent wildfire season within the state of California. This sample short essay explores these abnormal events and how these wildfires started.
- A summary of the recent news regarding this event
- Comparison between the current wildfire season past wildfires
- The underlying causes of the severity of the current wildfire season
- Remedies to decrease the severity of wildfires in the future
Backgroundon the California wildfires
The scope of the recent wildfire season can be gleaned to some extent from the rather laconic tone of the headline of an Associated Press article written on the 20th of September 2015, which states:
“Northern California Wildfire Destroys Another 162 Homes.” This is part of the broader count that “1,050 homes have burned in Lake County, many of them in the town of Middletown” (paragraph 2).
The wildfires, then, are clearly causing damage at a catastrophic level. One is speaking here of several thousand people being displaced from their homes as a result of the phenomenon. In a similar report, Garrity has indicated:
“The Valley and Butte fires have combined to claim at least five lives and consumed some 1,400 homes. Thousands more homes remain threatened” (paragraph 2).
The problem is thus an ongoing one; it is not over yet. More damage could likely be expected before the current wildfire season in California finally comes to a rest.
It is perhaps worth noting, though, that the damage to property has by far exceeded the actual damage that has occurred to human life. This is due to the cogent and preemptive evacuation policies that have been implemented by the relevant agencies within the state of California: when an area is suspected of being at significant risk of wildfire damage, the people within the area are evacuated, leaving only the property to face the brunt of the wildfires when they actually do occur. Of course, this still leaves the problem that all of these people are displaced (as we saw with the Katrina disaster that lasted for years) and that a great deal of work must be done in order to begin restoring the damage that has been done to all the property. Nevertheless, the evacuation policies explain why although 1,400 homes have been destroyed thus far by the wildfires in California, only 5 persons have actually died as a result of the wildfires (Garrity). Across, even 5 is far too many; but it must still be acknowledged that the situation could be considerably worse than it is.
Aside from the damage to human property and life, the wildfires in California also clearly have the effect of devastating the natural landscape. For example, regarding one particular wildfire, Garrity has written:
“Within two days, the wind-fed blaze had chewed up 50,000 acres.”
That amounts to a lot of trees, to put it mildly; and naturally, the wildlife that called those forests home will also suffer as a result of the event. The wildfires are thus a serious issue not only from the perspective of the human community but also from the perspective of environmental conservation policies in the United States.
To a certain extent, wildfires play a natural regulatory role within the ecosystem, providing a natural check on excesses within the ecosystem that could drive the system a whole toward unsustainability. The scope and magnitude of the wildfires in the current season in California, though, would seem to indicate that the wildfires have clearly exceeded this ecological role, becoming more purely destructive and out of control. In this connection, it is worth considering how the current wildfire season in California compares with past seasons.
Comparison of current and past wildfire seasons
Comparing the current season of wildfires in California against past seasons, Braham has summarized the relevant statistics in the following way:
“The number of fires is actually down in recent years—but look at the number of acres burned and the picture changes. More land has burned so far in 2015 than in the same period in any year in the past decade” (paragraphs 3-4).
There is thus a real objective sense in which the current season of wildfires in California is in fact significantly more severe than the several seasons that have come before it. This perception is produced not by a lack of historical context but is rather supported by the historical context itself. For example, the statistics indicate that whereas prior to the year 1995 there was an average of less than one mega fire a year (that is, a wildfire that is larger than 100,000 acres large), there are five mega fires active at the present time within the current season (Braham, paragraph 7). This represents a quite serious change in trends.
Likewise, Péréz-Peña has indicated the following regarding the scope and magnitude of the wildfires in the current season:
“Around 700,000 acres have burned this year in California, compared with about 500,000 in a typical year, and the fire season is nowhere near over. Right now, 15,000 people are deployed to fight wildfires across the state” (paragraph 12).
This is consistent with the idea that although there are actually fewer fires active in the current season than there have been in past seasons, those fires are considerably larger than they have been in the past, and they are causing a considerably greater level of holistic damage. In light of these statistics, one may well wonder why this is the case: that is, one may wonder what are the underlying causes of the increase in the severity of the wildfires in the current season in California relative to past seasons.
Additional Reading: Extreme Weather Conditions in 2014
Understanding the underlying wildfire causes
Interestingly, according to Cornwall’s report on the wildfires in California, the overwhelming number of them actually have human causes:
“In 2007, a fallen power line near San Diego set off a fire that scorched nearly 200,000 acres and killed two people. In 2009, sparks from a weed cutter are thought to have led to an 8,700-acre fire in Santa Barbara County that torched 80 homes And earlier this month, an illegal campfire started in Rancho Cucamonga grew to 2,700 acres” (paragraphs 7-9).
In other words, the wildfires tend to be caused by the interface of human beings with the natural environment; they are not generally caused by natural causes, such as lightning strikes. However, this point fails to address the broader question of why exactly the natural environment in California has developed such a proclivity for catching on fire.
The primary answer to this broader question is: drought. Caspari has quoted California Governor Brown as stating:
“California’s severe drought and extreme weather have turned much of the state into a tinderbox;” and Caspari herself has indicated that this is because “dry conditions make it particularly dangerous to burn landscape debris or build campfires, or even to use everyday equipment like lawnmowers” (paragraphs 5-6).
It is likely that the phenomenon of global warming is playing an important role in catalyzing the environmental conditions that are giving rise to more severe wildfires (Union of Concerned Scientists). Global warming means, among other things, that the general climate of the world can be expected to grow hotter and drier over the coming years and decades. Insofar as it precisely lack of precipitation and increased heat and dryness in the atmosphere that increase the likelihood of wildfires, global warming is a good candidate for explaining why the severity of wildfires in California has increased over time.
Moreover, Braham has pointed out that another reason for the increasing severity of wildfires in California consists of the fact that given the nature of the modern relationship between people and the environment, it is becoming less and less feasible to simply let the wildfires run their natural course:
“Fighting fires can burn natural cycles of burn and recovery, but as people move into potential burn areas, it’s harder for firefighters to make the case for standing back and letting the flames go. One result of this strategy is hotter and larger fires” (paragraph 7).
In other words, the fact that an increasing number of people are moving into potential burn areas means that firefighters are forced to disrupt the natural ecological function fulfilled by wildfires (since the alternative would be to simply let the people’s property burn down). This disruption can, paradoxically, exacerbate the overall frequency and severity of wildfires, due to the fact that the environment is not able to return to the kind of natural equilibrium to which it would have been returned had the wildfires been allowed to run their course.
Reflection for the future
At one level, it is clear that the increasing severity of wildfires in California is attributable to macro-level, global trends that surpass the scope of the state of California itself. At this level, the suggestion can be made that the only way to really prevent wildfires in the future would be to work toward preventing global warming itself (Union of Concerned Scientists). However, not only is this easier said than done, it is also possible that the phenomenon of global warming by now has reached a kind of natural tipping point, such that human efforts to prevent it may halt its progress but not succeed at truly reversing the trend altogether.
Understanding the cause of global warming can help reduce wildfires but will require the adoption of policies at the international level regarding alternative energy sources and controls on the use and emission of fossil fuels. If it is not possible to prevent global warming, then the people of California would simply need to make the assumption that increasingly severe wildfires are here to stay, and that they must adapt to this changing environment as effectively as possible.
At this narrower level of adaptation within California itself, the suggestion can be made that both California residents in general and firefighters in particular should begin to conceptualize and imagine how they could perhaps begin to live in a more natural balance with the environment and its ecosystem, as opposed to intruding upon the environment and disrupting its natural cycles. This could include, for example, generally refraining from moving into areas that are at high risk for being affecting by forest fires: not only would this relieve the burden placed on the state of California by evacuation procedures, it would also potentially diminish the overall incidence of wildfires by allowing at least some of the ones that do occur to run their course in a natural way. In the long run, if the reversal of climate change cannot be achieved at the macro-level, then California will continue to experience increasing levels of drought and dryness, which in turn will continue to produce increasingly severe forest fires. The residents of California would need to come to terms with this fact and plan their lifestyles and decisions accordingly.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the recent season of wildfires in the state of California. An important conclusion that has been reached here is that the wildfires are in fact growing increasingly severe in scope and magnitude over time, and that this is likely attributable at least in part to the broader phenomenon of climate change. Reversing the trend regarding wildfires would thus entail addressing global warming as such. If this is not possible, then the people of California would be well-advised to work toward adaptation.
Associated Press. “Northern California Wildfire Destroys Another 162 Homes.” ABC News. 20 Sep. 2015. Web. 20 Sep. 2015. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/wildfire-northern-california-kills-person-33898571.
Braham, David A. “Just How Bad Is the 2015 Fire Season?” Atlantic. 15 Sep. 2015. Web. 20 Sep. 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/09/just-how-bad-is-the-2015-fire-season/405439/.
Caspari, Sarah. “What Is Causing California’s Wildfires?” Christian Science Monitor. 3 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 Sep. 2015. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/USA-Update/2015/0803/What-is-causing-California-s-wildfires-video.
Cornwall, Warren. “Overwhelming Cause of California Wildfires: Humans.” National Geographic. 17 May 2014. Web. 20 Sep. 2015. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140517-san-marcos-wildfires-california-weather/.
Garrity, Patrick. “California’s Valley, Butte Fires among Worst in State History.” NBC News. 20 Sep. 2015. Web. 20 Sep. 2015. http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/western-wildfires/californias-valley-butte-fires-among-worst-state-history-n430606.
Pérez-Peña, Richard. “The California Wildfires: What’s Making This Season So Wild?” New York Times. 17 Sep. 2015. Web. 20 Sep. 2015.== http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/18/us/californa-wildfires-explainer-valley-and-butte-fires.html?_r=0.
Union of Concerned Scientists. “Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks?” Author, n.d. Web. 20 Sep. 2015 http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/impacts/global-warming-and-wildfire.html#.Vf94nr6yhSU.