Thousands of wildfires devastate California

Out of control: An unchecked wildfire can spread across 80 acres in a single minute. © Getty

Are California’s wildfires a warning to all of us? As the state fights some of the worst infernos in its history, experts argue that global warming makes them an ever greater threat.

Kathleen Boyne was fast asleep in the town of Paradise when neighbours woke her to tell her that a wildfire was heading their way. She only had time to grab two treasured books as she rushed for her car. “I just kept hearing explosions, the sky was getting darker and the smoke stronger,” she recalls. “But I still thought that I didn’t need everything, because I’d be back in a couple of days.”

She was wrong. Her house, like most of the town, was burnt to the ground; 85 people in the area were killed – victims of one of the worst fires in the state’s history.

Two years on, Californians are again facing a threat that has become an all too familiar part of their lives. Right now, over 16,750 firefighters are battling 29 major wildfires that in total have burned over 2.8 million acres. Hundreds of thousands have been evacuated, including all the students at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and more than 4,100 structures destroyed.

Many of the current conflagrations were started by lightning strikes – an estimated 11,000 of them. But experts point to a variety of other reasons for the state’s tragic record. “In pretty much every single way, a perfect recipe for fire is just kind of written in California,” says Dr Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University.

Last week, having earlier declared a statewide emergency, Governor Gavin Newsom said, “Debate is over. This is a climate damn emergency.” Indeed, climate plays a crucial part. California has hot summers with low rainfall, resulting in dry vegetation that provides kindling for the fires. The situation has been made worse by global warming, which has raised local temperatures by up to three degrees Fahrenheit.

It has also disrupted traditional weather patterns, so that a year of extreme rainfall can cause a proliferation of plants, which are then killed by extreme heat – leaving them dried out and ready to burn.

Autumn holds a further danger: a phenomenon known as the Santa Ana winds. The winds dry out the vegetation even more, fan the flames of existing fires and carry embers that start new ones.

The resulting fires travel three times faster than the summer ones and pose a particular risk to urban areas in southern California. Those who have had to evacuate their homes have included stars such as Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Humans have added to the problem by planting trees that are not native to California, and burn more easily. They have also increasingly been building homes in areas close to forests, rather than in cities.

Some of the state’s worst fires have been caused initially by trivial accidents. One, in 2018, began when a truck’s tyre blew out and the wheel’s rim scraped against a pavement, causing a shower of sparks. Only last week sparks from a firework, lit at a gender-reveal party, caused a fire that destroyed more than 10,000 acres.

But negligence is a factor too. Many fires, including the one that devastated Paradise, have been started by broken electric cables. In that case, the live wire became detached from a steel tower, which was nearly a century old and should have been replaced 25 years ago. The company responsible, Pacific Gas and Electric, has been widely criticised for its safety record.

Are California’s wildfires a warning to all of us?

Tinder box

Some say, yes, to the extent that they are the product of climate change, which affects the whole world. California is naturally given to wildfires, but – as in Australia – hotter summers have greatly increased their severity. The 10 largest fires in its history have taken place in the last 20 years and, says Park Williams, climate change “seems to also load the dice toward more fire in the future”.

Others point out that California has some very particular conditions – such as the Santa Ana winds – that are not matched by the rest of the world. And, paradoxically, its situation is made worse by a successful history of controlling fires; vegetation that would otherwise have been destroyed years ago has survived to provide extra fuel for modern fires.

You Decide

  1. If you were fleeing a wildfire and only had time to pack 10 items, what would they be?
  2. Should people who cause wildfires through negligence face the same penalties as arsonists?

Activities

  1. Draw a map of California showing where the current wildfires started and how they have spread.
  2. Write a short story about an encounter between a firefighter and an arsonist.

Some People Say...

“Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster.”

Jim Wallis, American theologian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the trend for people moving away from urban areas and making their homes in or near the wild creates great dangers. In California, there is a particular risk that they will accidentally start fires. But they also impinge upon wildlife: damaging habitats, reducing biodiversity and increasing the chances of diseases being transmitted from animals to humans.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns the political ramifications of the fires. President Trump has accused California’s state government of failing to care for its forests properly and threatened to withhold federal funding. His opponents say that he is acting out of spite because California is a state in which he has relatively little support. He is also alleged to have cut aid to the victims of previous fires for the same reason.

Word Watch

University of California
Santa Cruz is just one of the university’s 10 campuses. Between them, they have over a quarter of a million students.
Conflagrations
A conflagration is an extensive fire that destroys a great deal of land or property.
Bioclimatologist
Someone who studies the effect of the environment on living creatures over an extended period of time.
Kindling
Material for starting a fire. It comes from an old Norse word meaning a candle or torch.
Proliferation
An increase in number. In 1968, 190 countries signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Embers
Hot fragments thrown out of a fire, or in a dying one. An ember can also be a period of time or season of the year; the term used to be associated with fasting in the Anglican Church.
Arnold Schwarzenegger
After making his name as the star of films such as Terminator, he became a politician, serving as governor of California from 2003 to 2011. As of 2020, he is the most recent Republican governor of California.
Paradoxically
In an apparently nonsensical or contradictory way.

Subjects

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