By Stephanie Ma
The scorching summer season may mean fun and downtime to a lot of people. But with the whopping amounts of wildfires scorching in California, USA, it’s really no different from an inferno to some of the state’s residents.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a total of 6,744 individual wildfires of all sizes have been reported so far this year as of September 2017. The massive fires engulfing the Golden State this summer – and now into autumn – have burnt through more than 6 million acres with costs of damage snowballing up to a hefty US$2 billion.
True, California may be known to have a fire season. But looking at what’s been happening lately, CAL FIRE officials and veteran firefighters with more than 30 years of experience believed that there could only be one way of describing it: unprecedented.
Therefore, here comes the big question: Who is to blame?
Like its intense dry conditions and heavy precipitation, the state’s forest fires have long been a part of nature’s dynamic dating back millions of years. Disregarding external circumstances like human intervention, California’s cycles still incline towards the extreme. Such extremes are, unfortunately, growing in recent years and climate change is likely to be a primary factor.
For instance, a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 found out that during the past 30 years, anthropogenic climate change has increased the amount of forest fire activity across the western continental United States by more than 50%, and that the landmass temperature of the country has risen by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
The mammoth upsurge in the earth’s temperature brings about vapour pressure deficit, significantly enhancing fuel aridity across western United States acreage over the past several decades with 75% more forested area undergoing high fire- season fuel aridity during 2000-2015.
Climate change is not the only factor fanning the flames, the same study suggested. Naturally occurring forest fires have been extensively dampened down within the same region during the past 10 decades, creating a proliferation of biofuels just waiting to be triggered.
Additionally, in a recent interview with the Santa Barbara Independent, UCLA ecology and wildfire expert Glen MacDonald commented that both prolonged droughts and subsequent heavy rainfall this year act as a major driving force behind the proliferation of these disastrous wildfires. Dennis Burns, a fire behaviour analyst with the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department, also added, “Normally, we estimate there’s a quarter-ton to a ton of grass per acre. This year, it’s two to three tons an acre.” The valley chaparral usually produces natural oils that discourage undergrowth. However, with heavy rainfall earlier this year, these oils have been considerably diluted, thus enabling grassy fuels to thrive.
The price of containing backcountry wildfires has skyrocketed so significantly that approximately 70% of Los Padres National Forest’s yearly budget is expended on fire suppression efforts. Although it is still unclear as to what actually sparked off the rash of blazing fires this year in California, it is our imminent responsibility to help prevent wildfires originating from human error and most importantly, to minimize the likely catastrophic impacts of climate change starting from today.