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  • Shreya Nara, AIT

California wildfires

Last year was a year like no other. America was trying to get through a pandemic, stressing about the results of the 2020 election, and dealing with much more. California in particular caught people’s attention with record setting wildfires.

While there are many causes for the wildfires, climate change stands at the forefront. In her Popular Mechanics article, “Why Are There So Many Fires in California” written on August 19th 2020, Jennifer Leman, who writes about Earth’s hazards and wonders, explains that years of fire suppression and difficult wind conditions are two of the many prime reasons wildfires take place. In addition to this, humans contribute to most of these fires, sometimes without realizing it. Though other times, that’s not fully the case.

Global warming creates conditions like dry vegetation, reduced snowpack in the Sierras, and decreasing water runoff in the spring. These conditions make it easy for massive wildland fires to burn parched vegetation, according to Leman. In an article for National Geographic, environmental writer Alejandra Borunda explains that global temperatures are rising by a little under 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. While the temperature increase may seem insignificant, it could have big effects in the future. For instance, if hot air is not 100% humid, it can soak up water from anything it comes into physical contact with, such as plants, soil, rivers, and lakes. The hotter and drier the air, the more water it can absorb. To study the amount of moisture in the air, scientists measure vapor-pressure deficit, or VPD, the difference between the amount of water the air could potentially hold versus the amount of water the air does hold. If the VPD is significantly high for a long time, soil and vegetation will parch. Last year, the VPD in California was slightly more than 25 hectopascals, the highest it has been since 1900.

Management officials in California have attempted to suppress fires in the West, leading to an overgrowth of vegetation. Additionally, the fires now have more plants to burn than they otherwise would have, had fires not been suppressed for the last 100 years, according to Kendra Pierre-Louis’ and John Schwartz’s article Why Does California Have so Many Wildfires?. Though fire suppression methods like the controlled burn work temporarily to keep fire away from certain areas of trees and brush, once a wildfire does strike that area, there are more plants to feed the flames. As the U.S. Forest Service explains, now the West is essentially playing catch-up with killing all the plants that it wasn’t able to kill before. To add salt to the wound, people have been relocating farther and farther into an area known as Wildland Urban Interface. This area stands in between cities and the wildlands of California. This puts them at risk of experiencing and starting fires, making it tricky for fire management officials to set controlled burns which lessen the build-up of vegetation and/or fuel.

Most frequently, humans are the ones who cause wildfires. Sometimes, wildfires occur due to lightning, but mostly, humans accidentally ignite them. For example, according to Pierre-Louis and Schwartz, an unidentified couple started smoke generating fireworks at a gender-reveal party on September 5th 2020. The pyrotechnic device they used ignited a wildfire that covered an expanse of thousands of acres in the eastern Los Angeles.

The Santa Ana winds are another main cause of the California wildfires. Southern California meteorologist Jacqueline Bennett states that these winds develop from uneven daily warming over land and water. Every year, in fall, strong gusts of wind carry dry air from the Great Basin area of the West (which spans almost all of Nevada, a good chunk of both Oregon and Utah, as well as portions of California, Idaho, Wyoming, and Baja California, Mexico) to Southern California. These winds dry vegetation and move around embers, the small pieces of burning or glowing coal in a dying fire. The moving of embers and the drying of vegetation lead to forest fires.

On the bright side, Luba Mullen of the National Forest Foundation states that certain trees in fire-prone zones develop thicker bark in order to protect themselves from the fire. While it’s great that certain trees can adapt, not all plants will be able to do the same thing. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of these occurrences and for everyone to do their parts in stopping the spread of wildfires, especially as humans play a huge role.

Works Cited

Leman, Jennifer. “Why Are There So Many Fires in California?” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 19 Aug. 2020,

Borunda, Alejandra. “California's Fires Are Partly Fueled by Climate Change .” Science, 25 Oct. 2019,

Pierre-louis, Kendra, and John Schwartz. “Why Does California Have So Many Wildfires?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 2020,

Mullen, Luba. “How Trees Survive and Thrive After A Fire.” National Forest Foundation, 2017,

Morales, Christina, and Allyson Waller. “A Gender-Reveal Celebration Is Blamed for a Wildfire. It Isn't the First Time.” Gender-Reveal Party Is Blamed in California Wildfire - The New York Times, 18 Sept. 2020,

Borenstein, Seth. “What Makes California Burn so Much? Climate Change and People, Experts Say.” ABC7 Los Angeles, KABC-TV, 21 Aug. 2020,

Morales, Christina. “How California's Diablo Winds Could Worsen Wildfires.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Oct. 2020,

Simon, Matt. “These Wind Patterns Explain Why California Is Now on Fire.” Wired, WIRED, 27 Nov. 2018,

Borunda, Alejandra. “Santa Ana and Diablo Winds Propel Raging Wildfires in California.” Science, 18 Sept. 2020,

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