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In today’s Covering Climate Now Post, Greta Moran explains the factors behind the recent surge in California’s wildfires and the aftermath that entails. Article written by Greta Moran for Teen Vogue.
Corporate negligence and climate change can help explain year after year of destructive, deadly blazes.
California’s beautiful stretches of forest and grassland are meant to burn. Fire is a natural part of the state’s diverse ecosystems, and native plants (including sequoias and redwoods) have adapted to withstand periodic fires. But California was never meant to burn the way it is now. Over time, these natural, regenerative wildfires have turned into highly destructive, deadly catastrophes without historical comparison, to the point that fire historian Stephen Pyne has named this era “the Pyrocene.”
Paradise, California, was leveled to the ground by fire moving at a speed of 80 football fields per minute. Sonoma County, still recovering from the 2017 Tubbs Fire, was not supposed to experience another catastrophe like the Kincade Fireso soon. California is not supposed to experience statewide tragedies every fall like the ones we’ve seen in the past few years.
Wildfires may seem like sudden accidents of nature, but these recent conflagrations are in some ways a more slow-moving disaster: the result of overlapping, systemic issues, including the historical suppression of indigenous fire management practices and accusations of corporate negligence of vital public resources, climate experts tell Teen Vogue. The staggering amount of deaths, destruction, and displacement from recent wildfires is so tragic, in part, because so many of the factors involved are caused by humans.
What exactly is driving these supercharged wildfires?
An investigation by the Wall Street Journal claimed that California’s largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, knew that parts of its aging 18,500-mile transmission system were in desperate need of repair and a potential fire hazard, but that the company failed to act. The state found the utility giant responsible for the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the California’s history, and blamed for sparking more than 1,500 fires in total.
“PG&E has really struggled as a company with safety,” Michael Wara, a lawyer and Stanford University professor focused on climate and energy policy, tells Teen Vogue. But the utility is not solely responsible for the intensity of the fires. Says Wara, “Whether or not PG&E maintains its lines properly wouldn’t matter so much if layered on top of that wasn’t climate change.”
In an email to Teen Vogue, a PG&E spokesperson said the company “didn’t agree with or support” the Wall Street Journal’s findings, but added, “We have acknowledged that the devastation of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires made it clear that we must do more to combat the threat of wildfires and extreme weather while hardening our systems.” (The spokesperson has not yet responded to a follow-up email asking if there is a date set for when the system will be fully updated.)
The warming climate has dried out California’s landscape, turning it into a tinderbox. It’s no coincidence that, last year, vegetation was at record levels of dryness in the part of California where the most destructive fire in the state’s history was burning. One study showed that the burned areas consumed by California’s wildfires have increased by more than 400% between 1972 and 2018. This is due in part to climate change: rising temperatures, have an exponential impact when it comes to setting the stage for catastrophic wildfires, the researchers found, particularly in forests.
“The hotter the air is, the drier the air is,” says Park Williams, the lead researcher on the study and a bioclimatologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The drier the air is, the more easily it can dry out the vegetation and make it flammable.”
Over the past three years, this has all come to a head in the autumn, Williams explains. Supercharged wildfires have happened when the dry season, which has intensified due to climate change and delayed rains, coincided with the hot, dry “devil winds” from the high desert: Northern California’s Diablo winds and Southern California’s Santa Ana winds. “If these wind events get going in fall, say, early October, and the first big rain has not yet occurred, then that’s a perfect recipe for a big wildfire,” Williams says.
But climate change, “devil winds,” and PG&E’s alleged mismanagement aren’t even the full story behind the wildfires. Historically, federal and California state wildfire management policies have been geared toward suppressing nearly every fire, including beneficial fire. (Teen Vogue reached out to Cal Fire and the Forest Service for comment.) Native tribes have long used fire to steward and build fire-resiliency on their lands, but were forced to give up or reduce this important eco-cultural practice for over a century. As a result of these policies, enacted on the federal level by the Forest Service in response to 1910 fires, California’s grasslands and forests are choked with vegetation and plant debris, which help kindle wildfires.
“These are not natural disasters at all. These are very much man-made disasters,” says Leaf Hillman, director of the department of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe in Northern California. “They are directly attributable to fire suppression policy.” Hillman explains that in the past, “the landscape was managed with fire at such frequent intervals that fuels were never allowed to accumulate to these dangerous levels.”
There’s a now broad consensus among leading fire scientists that supports what native tribes have long known: Intentionally applied fire, often called prescribed fire, is an essential tool for managing wildfires and ecosystems. While state and federal fire management approaches are shifting to reflect this, and also now allowing native tribes, including the Karuk Tribe, to reintroduce and scale-up prescribed fire use, there’s still a long way to go in dismantling the legacy of fire suppression. According to data collected by McClatchy, and Climate Central, an independent organization of climate scientists and journalists, California as a whole is still barely “making a dent” in clearing the state’s dangerous fuel load, the McClatchy Bee reported.
What are the impacts of the wildfires?
The most visible impact of a wildfire is the immediate destruction left in its wake. Wildfires are swallowing up more and more land: Since 2000, 7 million acres on average, across the United States, have burned from wildfires every year, which is double the average acres burned in the 1990s. In 2018, wildfires killed more than 100 people and destroyed more than 25,000 structures in the U.S., including 18,137 homes.
Much of this destruction isn’t happening in the thick of California’s forests. The areas most vulnerable to wildfire are a part of what’s known as Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), which is “basically where human development meets up with these unoccupied or more natural ecosystems,” says Erin Banwell, a fire ecologist living in Northern California. These areas are more prone to destruction because of the density of flammable structures nestled within or near ecosystems that have grown less adapted to fire, due to fire suppression policies, explains Banwell.
So why are people living on the edge of wildlands? In part because there is not enough affordable housing in California. An Atlantic article describes this as a “vicious cycle”: thousands of houses are destroyed every year by wildfires, the affordable housing crisis deepens, pushing even more people toward wildfire-prone areas.
There are other less visible impacts of wildfires too. For instance, wildfire smoke is becoming a public health crisis in California. Research has found that the particulate matter of smoke is leading to premature deaths and can have lifelong impacts on the immune system. Then there’s the toll on mental health. In the wake of the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative, a group of mental health experts, came together to study and find ways to respond to these impacts.
“What you see in the short term is that people just become emotionally triggered much more quickly. Their bandwidth is really shortened,” says Adrienne Heinz, a member of the collaborative and a clinical research psychologist at the VA National Center for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the longer term, survivors of wildfires can develop PTSD, especially if they lacked support earlier in the healing process.
To aid survivors with healing, Heinz helped develop a free app, Sonoma Rises, which provides content geared specifically toward assisting survivors as they cope with the aftermath of a wildfire, and features a section just for teens.
How can California become more fire resilient?
There isn’t a silver-bullet solution to the California wildfires and the many crises folded into them. But there are some clear changes that need to happen.
First, experts say, the power transmission system needs to be updated as soon as possible (some argue that transitioning utilities into public ownership could make them more accountable). Second, entire communities need to find ways to live and adapt to the growing realities of fire. There’s a growing network of neighborhoods collaborating on strategies to do this. These include updating homes to be fire resistant (or “hardened”), designing buffer zones (“defensible spaces”) between buildings and vegetation to disrupt the spread of fire, and building community-wide involvement in wildfire planning.
The fuel provided by California’s dry and overgrown forests and grasslands needs to be reduced by increasing the use of fire intentionally applied to the landscape. There are already many communities ramping up prescribed fire efforts. For instance, the Karuk Tribe recently released a detailed climate adaptation plan, centered on the intentional reincorporation of fire, and have added education on prescribed fire to the local schools’ curriculum. But to really safeguard California, these efforts need to be regional.
Getting to the root of this crisis, explains Hillman, will require massive public re-education to shift our relationship to fire and to a rapidly heating world.