Climate Change and Its Impact on California Wildfires
The summer months in California bring with them a devastating but familiar threat – fire. This season is unfortunately no different as six active fires continue to burn across the state. That number would be even higher were it not for the swift and effective response from firefighters throughout California working to protect people, their homes and our natural resources.
With nearly one hundred homes destroyed, in addition to historic landmarks in the area, the Blue Cut Fire was a particularly fierce and devastating blaze in Southern California this season. The Blue Cut Fire comes directly on the heels of the Sand Fire, which came frighteningly close to residents of Kagel Canyon and the Sunland-Tujunga region of our district.
Wildfires in and of themselves are not always bad – they are part of nature and help prevent underbrush growth from stunting development of plant and animal species.
However, the number, severity, and size of these fires in our state have increased considerably – presenting a critical threat to our residents, our homes and infrastructure, and to the environment. According to the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection, this year California has experienced 300 more wildfires than at this point in 2015, and the numbers of acres burned is 50% greater than the five-year average.
With fires continually endangering large populations in Southern California, home to more than 22 million people, the cost of fighting these fires has put a strain on our state’s financial resources. Larger, quicker-burning fires like the San Bernardino forest’s Blue Cut blaze, can cost over one million dollars a day to fight, with annual costs for the state now exceeding over one billion dollars at least twice in the past five years.
A number of factors have contributed to the steady rise in number and intensity of wildfires in our state. Last year, researchers from the University of California collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service and Pasadena’s own Jet Propulsion Laboratory to understand what has driven this steady growth of wildfires in our region. They found that temperature rise and longer dry periods coupled with lack of precipitation have contributed significantly to the increase of these devastating fires – all direct consequences of climate change. These same researchers predicted that these rates will continue to rise in the coming years.
This era of intense fires is a new reality for our state and one that we must learn to address in our dryer, hotter climate. According to a report published last year by the U.S. government, the fire season now lasts 78 days longer than it did in 1970. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record, but now 2016 is on track to outpace last year’s record heat.
Significant investments have been made by government at both the federal and state level to address the wildfire threat in California, and our state has led the way in its commitment to combat climate change by investing in clean energy and reducing our environmental impact. California’s Dept. of Fire Protection does not solely respond to incidents of wildfire; the department also takes preventative measures. These measures include vegetation management programs, clearing brush in areas particularly prone to wildfire as well as constructing fire breaks to slow the spread of fires when they are already in progress.
Prevention is also crucial at an individual level, and it is important to educate ourselves about what we can do to directly reduce the possibility of man-made wildfires. Whenever we plan outdoor activity, especially in areas with heavy vegetation, it is important to remain highly vigilant of potential fire hazards.
These proactive steps can contribute to mitigating the threat of wildfires, but they are no substitute for taking even stronger action against climate change. We are extremely fortunate as Southern Californians to have access to an exceptional amount of open space in our region. Protecting that environment must remain a priority both in Congress and as a state, a responsibility that begins with understanding the contribution that climate change makes to the problem. With another fire season in full swing, we are again reminded that the challenge posed by climate change is no distant prospect, but as real and vivid as the danger that burns just over the next hillside.