California's relatively calm fire season ended in mid-October with several simultaneous blazes that have since scorched thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of structures. The largest fire, the Kincade Fire, has burned through 80,000 acres and obliterated 370 structures, including 141 homes, in Northern California since October 25, 2019. In Southern California, the Maria Fire, which broke out in Santa Paula, Ventura County, shortly after 6 p.m. on October 31, 2019, has chewed through 10,000 acres and threatened the area's tens of millions of dollars' worth of avocado and lemon crops.
Though both blazes, as well as the several smaller ones, are now mostly contained, experts warn that the prevailing hot and dry conditions continue to elevate fire risk throughout this week. Why is the Golden State so susceptible to destructive fires? Read on . . .
What starts wildfires?
A 2017 NASA study found that 84% of wildfires are the result of human mistakes. Small things like small embers from a campfire, a carelessly-tossed cigarette butt, or a firework can result in massive blazes. Many of California's most significant fires, including Los Angeles's recent Getty Fire — whose start was captured by a dashboard camera (see video) — have been caused by tree branches falling on utility poles. While this would typically not be a big deal, the combination of California's increasingly dry weather and stronger winds causes the fires to spread rapidly, making them hard to control.
Why does California have more fires than any other state?
Since California seems to always be in the news for deadly fires, it would appear that the state gets more than its fair share of blazes. However, according to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2018, Texas took the lead with 10,541 fires, and California came in second with 8,054 wildfires. However, California's blazes burned through 1.8 million acres, while Texas' fires scorched a comparatively low 569,811 acres. A July 2019 study by Earth's Future found that the portion of California that burns from wildfires every year has increased more than five-fold since 1972.
California's growing population, which has led to developments in previously uninhabited areas, has made the blazes increasingly dangerous. Six of the state's most destructive fires have occurred in the last ten years and 15 of its 20 largest fires have raged in just the last nine years! Additionally, the fire season, once limited to the summer and autumn months, now appears to be year-round.
Is climate change to blame?
Though individual fires cannot be attributed to climate change, experts believe the state's increasingly warmer weather, exacerbated by the potent smoke produced by the blazes, is definitely to blame. Over the past decade, California's average temperatures have risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit. This, combined with the low atmospheric humidity, is causing the brush to dry out faster, providing large amounts of fodder for fires to burn. "It's not just California — we are having more large, high-intensity fires in many parts of the world," Keith Gilless, a professor in the forestry program at the University of California, Berkeley, told Business Insider
What can be done to mitigate the growing risk?
Since a power line spark caused one of 2017's most significant fires, California's utility companies have been shutting down power, leaving millions in the dark for extended periods, during times of high fire risk. Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser for Northern California's Humboldt County, says while the measure does help reduce the potential for fire, it is only "one small piece of the puzzle." She adds, "Yes, utilities were responsible for the Camp Fire and Wine County Fire, but there's a whole host of reasons why fires start and continue burning."
Quinn-Davidson believes California should also be clearing out dead trees and vegetation that are close to power lines as well as those inside dense forests. Homes in at-risk zones could be made more fire-resilient by using non-flammable building materials. It is also important to limit or prohibit housing development in fire-prone locations.
Hopefully, California officials will start to take more preventative measures so that disasters like the one the state is currently facing are eliminated, or at least substantially reduced.
Resources: CNN.com,CBSnews.com,NPR.org, LATimes.com