California Wildfires 2020: A Man Made Catastrophe?
California is witnessing a series of record-breaking wildfires. As of September 14, 2020, a total of 7,718 fires have burned 3,451,428 acres (1,396,743 ha), more than 3% of the state's roughly 100 million acres of land, making 2020 the largest wildfire season recorded in California history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The intensity of the fires has been boosted by hotter and drier conditions (due to climate change) in combination with poor fire management such as the build-up of forest fuels and lack of strict preventive measures.
Places in the red mark the regions experiencing current wildfires.
On August 19, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom reported that the state was battling 367 known fires, many sparked by intense thunderstorms which occurred on August 16-17 due to moisture from the remnants of Tropical Storm Faust. Response and evacuations were complicated by a historic heatwave and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Governor declared a state of emergency on August 18. In early September 2020, a combination of a record-breaking heatwave and Diablo and Santa Ana winds, sparked more fires and explosively grew the active fires, with the August Complex fire surpassing the Mendocino Complex fire to become California's largest recorded wildfire. The North Complex explosively grew in size as the winds fanned it westward, threatening the city of Oroville, and triggering mass evacuations. The fires eventually overwhelmed the emergency response teams and the situation became so worse that the people were trapped inside the houses with animals, while their farms were set ablaze.
Early in the year, there was a concern for the 2020 fire season to potentially be prolonged and especially grave, due to the unusually dry months of January and February, one of the driest such periods of any calendar year on record. On March 22, a state of emergency was declared by California Governor Gavin Newsom due to a mass die-off of trees throughout the state, potentially increasing the risk of wildfires. Throughout March and April, rain began to consistently fall in the state, alleviating the drought conditions. Despite this, Northern California was still expected to have severe wildfire conditions due to the moderate or severe drought conditions in the area, whereas Central and Southern California were expected to have serious fire conditions later in the year due to delayed monsoon and precipitation.
Seasonal fire risk
Aeroplanes dousing the forest fires.
The year 2020 has been the largest wildfire season recorded in California history. However, from a historical perspective, the average annual acres burned prior to 1850 were probably significantly larger than years since reliable fire records began. Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, estimated that prior to 1850, about 4,500,000 acres (1,800,000 ha) burned yearly, in fires that lasted for months as the Indigenous peoples of California historically set controlled burns and allowed natural fires to run their course. The peak of the wildfire season usually occurs between July and November when hot and dry winds are most frequent. The wildfire season typically does not end until the first significant Autumn rainstorm arrives (usually around mid-October in Northern California, and roughly between the end of October to early November in California). Although fire season is a perennial issue in California, the scale and destruction caused due to the fires in this decade have been phenomenal, which requires urgent political action. One such issue is the large scale die-off of plants and trees due to high temperatures. The administration can plan some sort of viable irrigation pattern that will prevent the accumulation of dried leaves and branches, which catch fire easily and rapidly.
Shift in the fire policy
Since the 21st century, the US has adopted an aggressive firefighting strategy which has altered the fire ecology. Due to suppression, more forest fuel (such as dead leaves and wood, shrubs and grasses, small trees and canopies) accumulates over time which increases the intensity and scale of wildfires. A mixture of preventive measures such as controlled burns, mastication and shaded fuel breaks must be practised along with suppression strategies to avoid large, uncontrollable wildfires. A 2020, ProPublica investigation of the culture of Cal Fire, blames the capitalist greed of the fire suppression contractors and risk aversion of the U.S. Forest Service from preventing appropriate controlled burns to take place
There is an urgent need to revisit the clauses of "10 AM Policy" adopted in 1935 by the U.S. Forest Service to safeguard the timber resources. Through this policy, the agency advocated the control of all fires by 10 o'clock of the morning following the discovery of a wildfire. Fire prevention was also heavily advocated through public education campaigns such as Smokey Bear. Smokey Bear is an American campaign and advertising icon of the U.S. Forest Service to educate the public about the dangers of unplanned human-caused wildfires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] and the National Fire Protection Agency [NFPA] have developed specific policies to guide homeowners and builders to construct and preserve structures at the Wildland-Urban interface [WUI]. For example, NFPA-1141 is a standard for fire protection infrastructure for land development in wildland, rural and suburban areas and NFPA-1144 is a standard for reducing structure ignition hazards from wildland fire.
Leading climate scientists argue that climate change increases the temperature of wildfires in California, the risk for drought, and potentially also the frequency of such events. For example, David Romps, director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center summarizes the situation as follows: "To cut to the chase: Were the heatwave and the lightning strikes and the dryness of the vegetation affected by global warming? Absolutely yes. Were they made significantly hotter, more numerous, and drier because of global warming? Yes, likely yes, and yes." Similarly, Friederike Otto, acting director of the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute states, "There is absolutely no doubt that the extremely high temperatures are higher than they would have been without human-induced climate change. A huge body of attribution literature demonstrates now that climate change is an absolute game-changer when it comes to heatwaves, and California won't be the exception." Susan Clark, director of the Sustainability Initiative at the University at Buffalo argues, "This is climate change. This increased intensity and frequency of temperatures and heatwaves are part of the projections for the future. There are going to be more extremes in the coming future.
The need to reassess priorities
President Trump has sought to highlight forest management rather than climate change as the key factor explaining the wildfires burning across California, Oregon and Washington states. When asked during a visit to California about the role of climate change, Mr Trump said: "I think this is more of a [forest] management situation."And he pointed to other nations with forests, saying: "You go to Austria, you go to Finland, you go to many different countries, they don't have fires.”
This uninformed and negligent attitude of the U.S. government towards the raging fires in California, points towards a fundamental gap in our education and political system. It is high time that we must make ‘ecological sustainability’ the key part of public and political discourse. We, as global citizens, must demand strict legislation and implementation of environmental laws from our respective governments and international agencies.
By Divyansh Aggarwal
Divyansh is currently a second year student of BA Programme at Hindu College, University of Delhi.