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 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 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 facing a familiar threat. Over 16,750 firefighters are battling 29 wildfires that have burned over 2.8 million acres. Hundreds of thousands have been evacuated and more than 4,100 structures destroyed.

An estimated 11,000 of the current conflagrations were started by lightning strikes. But experts point to a variety of other reasons for the state’s tragic record.

Climate plays a crucial part. California has hot summers with low rainfall, resulting in dry vegetation providing kindling for fires. The situation is made worse by global warming, which has raised local temperatures by up to three degrees Fahrenheit.

It has also disrupted 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.

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 hotter summers have greatly increased their severity.

Others point out that California has some very particular conditions that are not matched by the rest of the world. Paradoxically, its situation is made worse by a successful history of controlling fires; vegetation has survived to provide extra fuel.

You Decide

  1. If you were fleeing a wildfire and only had time to pack 10 items, what would they be?

Activities

  1. Draw a map of California showing where the current wildfires started and how they have spread.

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

Conflagrations
A conflagration is an extensive fire that destroys a great deal of land or property.
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.
Conditions
One is the 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.
Paradoxically
In an apparently nonsensical or contradictory way.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.