The year 2020 has brought about numerous events that have strongly influenced our society today, one of which being the recent wildfires spreading across California. Merciless Californian wildfires have been widely reported through Instagram, Snapchat, or the weather app warning people to not go outside due to the hazardous air quality (having an AQI of over 200); however, most people have probably not considered the repercussions these fires have on the environment.
According to the California Statewide Fire Summary by CalFire, there have been over 8,200 wildfires in 2020 alone, burning over 4 million acres of land, more than 4% of the states average 100 million acres. These fires have caused 31 deaths, destroyed around 8,454 buildings, and forced over 60,000 residents to evacuate their homes as more than 16,500 firefighters work diligently to contain them.
Among the casualties and destruction caused by the California Wildfires, human and natural environments have also been negatively affected. According to National Geographic, the fires have generated and carried toxic smoke hundreds of thousands of miles across the west coast, leaving uncontrollable amounts of carbon in the atmosphere, polluting our environment.
This smoke has had a major impact on western states such as Oregon, Washington, and California as it has caused the air quality to skyrocket into hazardous levels, disallowing the millions of residents in these states to leave their homes. Along with the toxic air quality, ash and debris from the fires have covered streets and homes while the sky appeared orange and gray for a couple of days from the smoke.
The California wildfires have also impacted our natural environment. The blaze of these fires has consumed millions of acres of land, which is needed for thousands of plants and animals to survive. With these habitats destroyed, the ecosystem is put at risk as it will be more difficult for non-native and native species to recover and reproduce.
Furthermore, according to the U.S. Fire Service, the flames can cause a loss of topsoil and combustion of organic material, which can negatively impact nutrient retention and water infiltration. According to CBS, invasive weeds and grasses can replace this burned-up vegetation, making soil erosion and water runoff more likely and further increasing the chances of more wildfires to occur.
Most of the fires in our state are strengthened by uncontrollable, natural factors such as heavy winds that stretch the flames farther and farther; shrubs, invasive grasses, and trees that act as kindling; and droughts. Other wildfires, however, are caused by variables that we can control: climate change and human carelessness.
Multiple studies have revealed that bigger wildfires are directly correlated with global warming as the burning of coal, oil, and gas act as catalysts for drier plants, making them more flammable. Fire scientists Mike Flannigan and LeRoy Westerling stress the importance of this problem as Flannigan states that “Fuel moisture drives the fire business” and “Fuel moisture is being influenced by climate change” while Westerling proposes that “A Mediterranean climate sets up ideal conditions for the fire then is worsened by climate change.”
As the climate gets warmer, snow will begin to melt more and more, causing plants to become drier in the summer, increasing kindling options and rain to come later during the winter, extending the fire seasons.
Apart from climate change, most wildfires are caused by human carelessness when handling flammable materials in the wilderness. Human errors can spark some of the biggest wildfires in the western coastline, such as a gender reveal party that formed a fire that burned 45,000 acres of land and required 800 firefighters to maintain it.
So with this knowledge of the causes of wildfires, what are some things we can do to prevent them? In terms of climate change, we should use renewable energy that can generate half its power from wind or solar energy. We should reduce the amount of water we waste to mitigate the amount of carbon pollution and unplug outlets of devices we rarely use to decrease the amount of energy created by devices.
In terms of human carelessness,fire pits and campfires should be extinguished when in forests to eliminate chances of the flames spreading to unwanted, dried up kindling, and use extreme caution when handling flammable materials to avoid burning combustible objects.
Although wildfires may seem like disasters that only bring downfalls, there are some positive effects to them. Fires clean forest floors of debris, opening it up to the sunlight and allowing the soil to absorb more nutrients. This allows trees to grow stronger and healthier while removing the older, weaker ones. Wildfires also have the ability to kill diseases and insects that prey on trees. They keep forests healthy and strong as life-threatening diseases are warded off and more valuable nutrients are available to enrich the soil.
As the year finishes, the number of massive wildfires has luckily dwindled, but it is always important to notice the consequences that may occur through carelessness to the ecosystem. We should always make smart decisions for the benefit of our environment, for these small steps may cause massive impacts.