The California Wildfires: The Realisation of The Threat of Climate Change

Wildfires had been raging in California since the 8th of November when they were finally contained on 25th of November. The wildfires have burnt approximately 150,000 acres of land and have killed at least 88 people. Wildfires strip places of their landscape and communities of their homes, but it is their often unaccounted implications for the environment that are equally disturbing.

While wildfires may seem like freak accidents, it is no coincidence the worst wildfires in California’s history follow California’s hottest month on record this July (as recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association). Prior to this, the summer of 2017 was California’s hottest recorded summer. These statistics fall in line with the California Environmental Protection Agency’s records of regional warming in Southern California, which has seen a three degree increase in temperature in the last century.  

This means the fire season is lengthening, while the already brief rainy season in California shows signs of shortening. As insignificant as three degrees may seem, this is a huge shift in temperature – as evidenced by the occurrence of this extreme natural disaster.

With the change in climate comes change in the behaviour and frequency of wildfires. Dry weather converts vegetation into highly flammable fuel, and warm temperatures increase chance of combustion. Effectively, the state is transforming into a veritable tinderbox, primed and vulnerable to the human activity that causes an estimated 95% of wildfires.

In spite of such a staggering statistic, only an estimated 20% of wildfires are a result of arson – the intentional and pre-mediated action of setting the fire. The remaining 75% of wildfires caused by human activity are accidental.

Accidental causes of wildfires are divided into four main categories by the One Less Spark campaign: improper equipment use, like lawnmowers, weed beaters, tractors and trimmers; irresponsible burning of landscape debris; incorrect construction, maintenance or extinguishing of a campfire (although campfires are only estimated to cause 5% of wildfires); and cars, which can ignite a wildfire simply by driving over the dry and flammable brush. Johnny Cash famously ignited a forest fire in 1965 when his camper overheated – destroying 500 acres of California wildland and driving out 49 of the 53 endangered condors inhabiting the area.

A further 5% of wildfires in California are started by natural conditions such as lightning. Such wildfires, and their emissions of CO2, are a part of the planet’s natural carbon cycle. However, the increase in frequency of wildfires – and potency, as they are becoming consistently more ferocious – because of human activity is expelling a huge amount of CO2 to the detriment of the environment.

The amounts of greenhouse gases the California wildfires have emitted is as yet unknown, but it is safe to assume that this is going to be California’s worst year yet for greenhouse gas emissions; the wildfires which devastated Northern California in 2017 emitted as much CO2 as all California’s vehicles do in one year. Greenhouses gases are, of course, the primary cause of climate change as they trap infrared rays in Earth’s atmosphere.

More than a disaster solely for the people and government of California, the California wildfires represent a realised projection of the future of our planet at the hands of climate change. It begs the question of how such drastic escalation has been allowed, costing human lives and homes. It certainly asks: how much more must be sacrificed before radical changes to halt the rapid progression of climate change are made?

By Georgie Wardall

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