West Coast Fires and Climate Change

The Pacifican

By: Isabel Acevedo

On August 16, 2020, the August Complex Fire started and quickly spread to break the record of California’s largest wildfire. As of September 25th, thirty-nine days later, it has burned 867, 335 acres and firefighters have only contained around forty percent. It was caused by a series of lightning strikes that caused several different fires which have now turned the original smaller fires as one big area of wildfire activity.

Since 2018, wildfires have become a rampant annual disaster throughout California. These fires wreak havoc on the state through mass evacuations, burning hundreds of acres, worsening air quality, and even causing deaths in some areas. Although forest fires are a habitual characteristic in nature, wildfires at this frequency are even more dangerous. Climate changes are aggravating the conditions that allow fire to spread, making firefighters’ jobs increasingly difficult.

According to Dr. Lydia Fox, Associate Professor of the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, the main causes of wildfires are caused by human error and drought. She also states that the area where fires commonly originate is grassland. Other times, recent wildfires have been created by lightning strikes or in one specific case, pyrotechnics at a gender reveal party.

In terms of what part that climate change will play in this progression, Dr. Fox says that “with prolonged drought and warmer, drier weather, fires will be more common. Global warming is leading to warmer temperatures and more severe droughts in California, and other western states. The recent prolonged drought led to a spread of the pine bark beetle which killed a lot of trees in the Sierras, thus, increasing the fuel load for the fires, since dead trees burn easily.”

Although forest fires are a natural part of several ecosystems, wildfires are not. According to Dr. Fox, understanding the difference in fire classification is important to explaining the nature of fires. “Natural forest fires are an important way of clearing the underbrush in a forest and reducing the fuel load,” Dr. Fox says. “Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem. The problem we are having now is with more intense wildfires. Humans have been encroaching on the forests, and thus, human activity leads to fires (power lines sparking in big windstorms, for example, have caused major fires recently).”

These wildfires not only destroy homes and property, but also the environment. “Forest fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, some plants don’t release their seeds until they are exposed to the heat of a fire. But the massive wildfires we have seen in recent times, often lead to mudslides once the winter rains come,” Dr. Fox continues. “Since the vegetation has been burned off, leaving a layer of ash and nothing to protect the slopes, the soil and ash will get washed down hill. This leaves less soil on the slopes and often clogs up the streams downhill, when they get filled with the soil and ash.”

These wildfires are just another sign that climate change is affecting the environment in more ways that are realized. Dr. Fox gives her opinion on the matter. “The people who deny climate change are not likely to be convinced by any evidence. There is a lot of evidence for climate change, but because the effects increase relatively slowly, many people deny that they are occurring,” Dr. Fox states. “Science has become politicized and short-term economic interests seem to trump concern about the long-term economic impacts of climate change. By the time things get bad, the current group of deniers will be dead, and their grandchildren will be paying the price that their grandparents were unwilling to pay.”

Even with scientific evidence of climbing temperatures influencing the spread of wildfires, people continue to deny the reality of climate change. It has even become a large subject in politics. Most politicians have added climate change as a key essential to their campaigns. This will affect voters’ decisions when they are heading to the polls before November 3rd because voters will side with politicians that advertise their shared beliefs in this matter.

Pacific students had a definite voice in this matter. Registered voter, Alexis Villalpando, Speech Language Pathology ’23, says that climate change is a big factor in her voting decisions because “if we don’t take care of the earth and protect it, then one day it will no longer be able to take care of us, and that is a scary future.”

Ruth Aguilar, Political Science ’23, a Pacific Legal Scholar, and registered voter says that climate change is a big factor in her voting decisions because she “…wants someone in office who is aware of our global environmental problems.”

Voters have taken notice of these fires and the drastic impacts that global warming has inflicted. Although wildfires during a pandemic seem to be early signs of an impending apocalypse, actions to reverse the effects of climate change need to be taken and need to be taken fast. Consequently, the outcome of 2020’s presidential election will be a telling sign for how the American people view the impending doom of climate change, and if they are willing to do something about it before it is too late.