What’s causing California’s unprecedented wildfires

“There are several key ingredients needed for wildfires. They need favorable weather, namely dry and windy conditions. They need fuel. And they need an ignition source.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said that they are still investigating the origins of most of the blazes underway. But other factors this year stacked the deck in favor of massive conflagrations.

California and much of the western US are in the midst of a years-long drought. With limited moisture, plants dry out and turn into kindling. Ordinarily, vegetation at higher altitudes would still hang onto some moisture and act as a barrier to wildfires in places like the Sierra Nevada. However, the severity of the drought has caused even this greenery to turn yellow and gray.”

“human activity has made wildfires worse at every step. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is increasing the aridity of western forests and increasing the frequency and severity of extreme heat events.

People are also building closer to wildland areas. That means that when fires do occur, they cause more damage to homes and businesses. That proximity also means that humans are more likely to spark new infernos. The vast majority of wildfires are ignited by people, up to 84 percent, whether through errant sparks, downed power lines, or arson.

And for hundreds of years, people have suppressed naturally occurring fires. European settlers also halted cultural burning practices from the Indigenous people of the region. Stopping these smaller fires has allowed forests, grasslands, and chaparral to grow much denser than they would otherwise. Paradoxically, that means more fuel is available to burn when fires do occur, causing blazes to spread farther and faster.”

We must burn the West to save it

“A number of unique factors this year combined with long-term trends to create the devastating and unprecedented fires of 2020. But a major reason for the massive scale of the destruction is that natural fires and burning practices first developed by Indigenous people have been suppressed for generations.

Wildfires are essential to many Western ecosystems, restoring nutrients to the soil, clearing decaying brush, and helping plants germinate. Without these fires, vegetation in woodlands, grasslands, and chaparral shrublands accumulates, so more fuel is available to burn, especially when a megadrought keeps drying the fuel out, year after year. A debt to the landscape starts to mount, and when it comes due, there is hell to pay.

“If we’re not using fire in the same way that this landscape evolved with over millennia, then we could be creating a situation where we’re creating a further imbalance,” said Don Hankins, an environmental geographer at California State University Chico and a Plains Miwok Indigenous fire practitioner.”

“With the suppression of natural fires and indigenous burning practices, some sections of the forest grew to be anywhere from twice as dense to 10 times as dense as they were when fires were more frequent, increasing the likelihood of what’s known as a “stand-replacing fire.” These are massive blazes that can wipe out almost all of the living trees in an area, including towering overstory trees. When there’s a drought, more trees means there’s less water to go around, leading to drier and more flammable vegetation.”

“The question now is how to scale up these Indigenous burning practices across federal, state, and private land and develop an appreciation for the knowledge behind them. Even with the record-breaking blazes across the United States in recent years, there are still millions of acres of wildlands that have yet to burn and could still be devoured in megafires. And as the climate changes, more areas will become primed to ignite.”

Australia’s hellish heat wave and wildfires, explained

“The fires have now killed at least 20 people, torched more than 14.8 million acres, and destroyed more than 900 homes since September. The blazes turned skies orange and made breathing the air in Sydney as bad as smoking 37 cigarettes. The bushfires have also killed 480 million animals, environmental officials told the Times in the United Kingdom, including nearly one-third of the koalas in one of Australia’s most populated koala habitats, an area 240 miles north of Sydney.”

“The extreme heat in Australia this week is not just a fluke. There were unique patterns in rain, temperature, and wind that converged to scorch the continent, factors that scientists were able to detect in advance. But Australia is also deep in the throes of the accelerating climate crisis, facing not just extreme heat but changes in rainfall patterns. These shifts in turn stand to worsen other problems like drought and wildfires.”

“However, the links between fire risk and climate change are more complicated than the links between extreme heat and climate change.”