By Olivia Colangelo
California is a metropolis of art, pop culture, film, and influence, but recently, weather extremes within the Golden State have escalated. Wildfires, droughts, and heat waves are rampant throughout the nearly 900-mile-long coastal state. In 2022, an estimated 7,490 fires were ignited with 362,455 acres burned according to The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).
California is particularly susceptible to wildfires with its particularly dry seasons, low humidity, and high wind speeds. Dry vegetation is widespread throughout California forests, which fuels the rapidly-spreading fires. In 2018, when the wildfires had reached their climax, a total of 106 deaths were recorded. However, UC Irvine researchers soon augmented that number to 3,652 when a respiratory infection caused by air pollution was accounted for.
With millions of acres ravaged and hundreds of thousands of people evacuated, California has experienced some of the most severe and destructive wildfires in its history. The November 2018 Camp Fire, which spread from Butte County, was one of the most catastrophic fires in California history as it destroyed over 18,000 structures. The root of these extreme conditions can be attributed to climate change, which has made California’s climate increasingly arid over the past few decades. Data collected from CAL FIRE concludes that California’s average summer temperatures have risen by an estimated 2.5 °F since 1895.
In September 2021, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom endorsed a $15 billion plan to combat wildfires, dry spells, and climate change. A portion of this plan is dedicated to expediting California’s goal of using entirely carbon-free vehicles by 2035. In addition, California has expanded financing for firefighting equipment, including helicopters, air tankers, and firefighting teams. As fires continue to deplete the land, the number of United States Forest Service firefighters in California has decreased by over 20% since 2020.
Nearly 25,000 homes throughout California have been decimated by wildfires within the past five years. As for preventative measures, the Western Fire Chiefs Association urges California residents to firescape their property by building and maintaining defensible space. Fires can be mitigated around houses that are built with fire-resistant materials. Homeowners are encouraged to opt for non-combustible materials such as precast concrete. Forest management techniques are used to lessen the accumulation of flammable plants. The state of California is currently working to strengthen emergency alert systems to enhance communication during urgent times.