Could The California Fires Be Our Fault


Noah MacAulay, Writer

        California has seen more than 7,982 fires this year burning over 3.6 million acres, more than 10 times the number of acres that burned in an average year. ¹ We have to ask what is changing? The Answer, our climate and our mindset.


        The first major fire (destroyed over 1,000 acres) of this disastrous year occurred on May 3rd. This event was soon followed by many more major fires including the second and third-worst fires in the state’s history. 

        Climate change plays a large role in this type of natural disaster, as with the current temperature increase California has been getting hotter and drier, a deadly combination in the case of fires. According to David Romps, director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center said to the MIT technology review that “To cut to the chase: Were the heatwave and the lightning strikes and the dryness of the vegetation affected by global warming? Absolutely yes,” Romps said. “Were they made significantly hotter, more numerous, and drier because of global warming?  Yes, likely yes, and yes,” later going on to state how temperatures have increased by three to four degrees in California since the start of the 20th-century ²

        The Time of the year also plays a major role in this type of disaster.  According to Mercury News: “Unlike in most other states, it almost never rains in the summer in California. As part of California’s Mediterranean climate, most rain ends in April every year, and apart from a few light sprinkles, doesn’t begin again in earnest until November. That means by the time October arrives, nearly six months have passed without rain.” This dry climate plays a large role in the fires Mercury later says.

        A vast majority of the biggest fires currently were caused by lightning strikes, something that David Romps says could be very dangerous. Romps stated in a 2014 study “…every additional 1˚C (1.8 ˚F) of warming could increase lightning strikes over the US by about 12%.” This percentage is most likely even higher now given the increased global temperature since 2014. Lightning will always be present so there is no way to protect against it, and only through protecting against general fire can we protect against lightning, something a controlled burn could accomplish.

        In addition to the environmental changes, fire prevention agencies work hard at just that – fire prevention. They attempt to prevent and/or extinguish small fires before they can do any real damage, which unfortunately results in buildup vegetation or fuel for a larger fire to feed off (Source). This approach needs to change as it gives large fires an excess of fuel and unfortunately those in charge of the agencies don’t listen to this claim.



        According to Cal Fire, as of September 20, 2020, there have been an estimated 3,627,010 Acres of land destroyed, 7,193 Structures destroyed or damaged and 26 lives lost just from the flames.

        Not only have the fires burned and destroyed forests and structures but they have also generated mass smoke causing relatively large damage to the ozone layer said Gabriele Pfister in an interview with Earth Observatory, calling the damage done to the atmosphere “significant”. In addition to damaging the ozone layer, the fires and resulting smoke inhalation can also cause health concerns such as throat irritation, wheezing, sneezing, coughing, runny nose, congestion, chest discomfort, eye irritation, and shortness of breath. Sadly these health concerns are all too real as according to Mercury News “Between Aug. 1 and Sept. 10, the historically bad concentrations of wildfire smoke were responsible for at least 1,200 and possibly up to 3,000 deaths in California that otherwise would not have occurred, according to an estimate by researchers at Stanford University. Those fatalities were among people 65 and older, most of whom were living with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory ailments.”


Due to the size of the fires and the wind, the smoke is also very spread out causing red skies. The smoke from these fires not only causes red skies but the smoke stretches as far as British Columbia, Canada causing Vancouver to have the second-worst air quality in the world. Another spot in British Columbia that’s been heavily affected by smoke is Vancouver Island. Less than one-half mile from where this photo was taken, there is a mountain one mile high; however, it is no longer visible.

In some locations on Vancouver Island, the smoke became so thick that roads were closed due to dangerous conditions as drivers were unable to see more than 10 feet in front of them.

        According to The Guardian: “Since the second world war, California has trained and deployed thousands of prisoners to fight fires each year, recruiting those who are willing to fight wildfires at great personal risk in exchange for low wages and reduced sentences.” There has been much debate about the ethics of using prisoners as firefighters because “The crews are both crucial and heavily exploited, said Romarilyn Ralston, who worked at a fire camp while incarcerated. In exchange for extremely dangerous work, prisoners earn time off their sentences and are paid between $2 and $5 a day, plus $1 per hour when they are on a fire. Because incarcerated firefighters are paid so little, the program saves the state of California $90m to $100m a year.” While the ethics are questionable, the fact that California’s forest fire fight depends on prisoners is not and with the new early release program due to the Coronavirus, many prisoners are absent from the front lines.




The Duration of a fire is never definitively known until it is over; however, according to Mercury News there are at least two, and potentially three more months left where the risk of huge new fires will continue to grow until the fall rains arrive. “We are sort of holding our breath until we get into the rainy season right now,” said Jan Null to Mercury, a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services in Half Moon Bay. With the number of fires currently, firefighters can likely only delay the fires from growing as fast as they could but the rain will truly put them out.



        Have you ever heard the term fight fire with fire? A controlled burn is an idea that because humanity prevents smaller fires, the result is a build-up of fuel that makes big fires uncontrollable. If we let smaller fires continue without interference or create controlled fires ourselves then big fires lack the fuel they require and can be stopped. Although this idea is risky and would require lots of training and money, if done correctly according to ProPublica it could prevent large uncontrollable fires such as the ones we are currently seeing. ProPublica estimates that Californa would have to burn 20 million acres creating a checkerboard pattern to prevent these mega-fires. Many people at FUSSE (Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology) and the Fire Restoration group have been trying to pitch a controlled burn idea to congress but according to Craig Thomas, director of the Fire Restoration Group, “It’s painful.”, “He too, has been having the fire Cassandra (This is a reference to Greek Mythology when Cassandra tried to warn others of coming disaster but nobody listens) conversation for 30 years,” ProPublica says. Thomas doesn’t appear to believe that things will change unless there is someone else in power. “Until different people own the calculator or say how the buttons get pushed, it’s going to stay that way.” Thomas later said.

        The sustainable way to prevent mega-fires like these is to stop/slow global warming. As the Earth’s temperature continues to increase, bushes get drier, rain becomes increasingly rare and lightning strikes become more common. Lightning plays a big role in these fires as for each 1.5-degree increase in earth’s temperature lightning strikes will increase by more than 10%. These all are major factors in these current mega-fires.



        In conclusion, the best thing we can do and the only true way to prevent wildfires without turning California’s greenery into a checkerboard is to stop global warming. Slowing global warming would lower the Earth’s temperature, decrease the number of lightning strikes which have sparked a majority of the major fires and make greenery less dry, thus decreasing the odds of fire spreading. Certainly, the greatest threat the world faces right now that could kill more than the Coronavirus is climate change and we must take steps to stop it and save ourselves.