As fires ravage California, questions about climate change and its relation to the flames are raised

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Reya Mehta and Justin Litvak

   With the start of fire season each summer, smoke becomes visible from all over the state. This year has been no different. As of September 2020, over 7,000 fires have been reported in the state of California. 

   Some fires in California, such as the North Complex fire in northern California, have been burning since mid August. The North Complex fire is the most deadly and destructive this year, claiming over 750 structures and killing over 15 people, according to the LA Times. Smoke from that fire has even made its way over to Kansas, where a haze can be seen in the air.

   Another fire, the Bobcat Fire in San Bernardino County, started because of a gender reveal party and has burned 103,000 acres. According to the LA Times, the fire is fueled by all the built up dry brush in the area. So far, 26 deaths have been reported and 115 structures have been burned.

   The area around Mount Wilson Observatory was a great region of concern. At one point, the Bobcat Fire came within 500 feet of it. The 116-year-old structure holds historic telescopes that the city didn’t want to lose. Thankfully, the observatory was declared safe, surviving a close call with the flames. The Bobcat Fire is now 84 percent contained, though it continues to burn, according to KTLA.

      While fires aren’t a particularly unusual phenomenon in the Golden State, scientists are saying that the frequency of these fires, not their occurrence, is the worrying factor. According to the LA Times, the last six years have been the hottest on record. 

   This year brought the largest wildfire season in California history, and three of the most significant wildfires are still currently burning. More than 4.1 million acres have been burned, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. With another two months until the rainy season arrives, many are worried. However, these occurrences can be explained with science.

   The term “climate change” refers to large-scale shifts in weather patterns due to greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane. “We used to call it global warming, but it’s not quite that anymore, because different places have different effects,” explained Mrs. Solarez, an AP Environmental Science teacher at West Ranch.
“The West Coast here is going to be dryer, while the East Coast is going to be a lot wetter.”

    Even still, Earth’s average temperature is rising. NASA’s satellites have collected much data on their website, proving that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. Earth’s temperature has already risen by 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the nineteenth century.

   Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica have shrunk at an increasing rate in the last decade. Glaciers are retreating all around the world. Arctic sea ice is declining, and as a result of all of these, sea levels have risen about eight inches in the last century. NASA also states that the amount of high record temperatures has increased along with intense rainfall events.

   California has experienced this firsthand with August’s unprecedented summer lightning storm in the Bay Area. The lightning strikes sparked more than 700 fires in the state. While it might have just been a deviation of the weather, the lightning could also have something to do with the underlying risk of climate change.

   “Because of climate change, it’s warmer more often, and we have a longer fire season that begins earlier. In past years, fire season would be October and November. Now, it’s starting in August,” Mrs. Solarez said.

   Wildfires in California have greatly affected the world’s climate, releasing carbon dioxide and ash into the atmosphere. The 2017 wildfires in Sonoma and Napa released more carbon dioxide in one week than all of California’s vehicles in one year, according to InsideClimate News. 32.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere, a quarter of which was due to wildfires.

   During a wildfire briefing at McClellan Park, President Trump claimed that the issues lay with poor land management, stating that California simply needs to “clean [the] forests” and that the “many, many years of leaves and broken trees” are “like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up”. In contrast, California governor Gavin Newsom has declared a “climate emergency.” He has recognized the role of forest management in stopping the fires, but argues that it is not the only cause.

   Some major contributors to the wildfires, according to Mrs. Solarez, are “people living in places that used to be wild, called a wildland-urban interface,” and “Santa Ana winds.” These winds create “dangerous fire conditions, like with the Woolsey Fire and the Thomas Fire.” Bark-beetle infestations in the pine trees on the mountains are another contributor, weakening the trees and making them easily flammable.

   “All these things make it easier for trees to burn, and it is exacerbated by climate change,” Solarez added, calling it a “synergistic effect.”

   Recently, a technique has been reintroduced into California’s fire management practices. Rather than raking the forest floors, the technique involves setting controlled fires to the hills to clear out dry underbrush and reduce wildfire risk. 

   According to NPR, setting these controlled fires used to be an annual Native American tradition before it was banned by Western settlers. The ban on these cultural fires has now been lifted, and state officials are working with Native American tribes. By clearing out the underbrush, the conditions that give rise to extreme wildfires would not occur.

   This method of fire management, while not new, is starting to become more popular. As fires rage on in California, any hope for a stop to the smoke is one worth pursuing.

   It is important to remember the negative health impacts of wildfires as we continue on until the rainy season. Be sure to check the air quality before stepping outside, and stay safe, Cats!