As Smokey the Bear used to say, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” and the evidence can be seen in the recent onslaught of fires burning their way through California. Although The Golden State has always been a hotbed for raging, destructive fires, over the past few years it seems as if those occurrences have intensified. There are several theories, which we’ll explore, but first let’s take a look at the current forest fires and their statuses.
Kincade fire – Northern California
This is by far the largest burning fire in the state, although it is about 70% contained as of October 4. At least 352 structures were destroyed and another 55 damaged. Four civilians and firefighters have been injured and many people were evacuated. Acreage lost is about 77,758. The local utility company, PG&E, is the suspected culprit.
Easy fire – Los Angeles area
This fire is threatening the Ronald Regan Presidential Library and surrounding homes. At least 24 structures have been destroyed and three firefighters were injured. Although it is currently contained at 80%, about 1,860 acres have been lost so far.
Getty fire – Southern California
This fire is about 66% contained and has burned approximately 745 acres. At least ten homes have been destroyed with another 15 damaged. More than 7,000 houses remain threatened. Two firefighters have been injured. The Santa Ana winds are believed to be responsible for the spread of this fire.
There are many more smaller fires endangering the state with various causes. Power has been sporadically turned off by PG&E due to high winds and concerns of adding to or starting another fire. Hundreds of thousands of residents – those who were not evacuated — have been living without any electricity. Schools close when the power is down, so children are kept at home with their families while they cook on woodstoves and heat water for bathing.
What is Causing the Fires in California?
One theory is that climate change is causing so many more fires over the past decade (nine out of ten of the country’s biggest fires have been in the Golden State in the past ten years). California has been getting hotter each year with less rainfall, which means less snow melt and less water to nourish vegetation. However, those who do not agree with global warming argue that the state has always suffered from a rotation of serious droughts which oftentimes leads to forest fires.
Hot, dry winds certainly add to the spread of the fires and sometimes have been the cause simply by catching a small spark and spreading it. The southern part of the state experiences what are called the Santa Ana winds, which can be very powerful and make it difficult for firefighters to combat the flames. These winds also make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for helicopters to drop water and fire retardants on the fires. Northern California has to contend with the Diablo winds which can be just as menacing as their southern counterpart – both have been known to reach gusts of 80-MPH.
While human error also plays a big role in starting these fires (such as throwing lit cigarettes out a car window or fireworks), and more people moving into once forested areas, one of the biggest factors in recent years has been PG&E and the company’s faulty equipment. The company has already had to file bankruptcy after being found guilty, and is scrambling to find and repair any problems. It is also the reason so many Californians are without electricity as power lines and transformers are shut down during high winds to prevent other malfunctions or the spread of fires.
Another large contributor is forest fire prevention mismanagement. For too many years preventive measures were not put into place that would have helped stem the start and spread of fires. This is what President Donald Trump is referring to when he blames the state for the recent forest fires. Brush and debris need to be cleaned out, many times by starting controlled fires, so that the old and diseased trees can be removed while allowing for new and healthy growth of younger vegetation.