California Wildfires: Environmental Causes


Olivia Chen

Esther Huang ’20 said, “This year’s wildfire season is unlike any before, with mass scale devastation and millions of dollars in damages.”

Burning hot ash and fire embers falling from the trees, families running in all directions, abandoning their homes, cars, and businesses—this was what you saw in the Los Angeles and Ventura Counties of California during the 2018 wildfire season. This may sound like a scene from an action movie, but for Californians, it was their reality. The season started in mid-July and was declared a national disaster in the beginning of August. The complete destruction of almost two million acres from Southern Washington to Northern California cost about $3.5 billion in damages, eighty-five lives, and about $432 million in operations to contain the fires. California announced that its wildfires were contained on December 2nd, 2018.

The severity of this year’s wildfire season is unparalleled; the last fire that can compare was the Santiago Canyon Fire of 1889. Conditions that prefaced the Santiago Canyon Fire and the 2018 wildfire season bear close resemblance: dry air conditions, drought, and low rainfall during the year. However, the 2018 season differs because dry conditions were worsened by global warming and climate change. Esther Huang ’20 said, “Global warming is a very prevalent issue right now, and you can see its impacts in California. Rising temperatures have contributed to drought, which has also lead to the severity of the fires this year.”

In fact, in June 2017, the Chancellor’s Office of California State University identified California as the state with the worst air quality, due the fact that California has at least three of the worst polluted cities in the United States: Long Beach, Bakersfield, and Fresno. Cars contribute to air pollution as well, increasing the carbon dioxide that California emits into the atmosphere. Increased carbon dioxide leads to higher temperatures, which has made the drought that California faces inevitable.

Global warming effects have prompted the other underlying cause of the fires: tree ‘fuel.’ By the end of 2017, a record of 129 million trees were dead in California. The higher temperatures and drier conditions have led to an increase in the population of bark beetles, which have killed many of the trees in southern Sierra. These dead trees have been named as ‘fuel’ for the California wildfires since they catch on fire quickly and fall down, spreading the growth of the flames. Sparks from a car, campfire, or even a cigarette are now extremely hazardous in the dry conditions of California due to these air conditions.

The temperature isn’t just rising in California—it’s been rising everywhere. Studies by Noah Diffenbaugh at the Stanford Woods Institute for Environment have shown that global warming has increased the chances of natural disasters from high temperatures for at least eighty percent of the world. While California dealt with its fires, Greece has also been fighting its own flames, which have taken the lives of almost 100 people, setting the record for the deadliest fire in Europe after more than a century. Sweden, which is located in the north of Europe, has also faced wildfires in 2018, forcing the country to ask for foreign assistance in fighting the fires.

Global warming has attracted public concern in recent decades and public awareness has only increased. “I think that as long as global warming continues and becomes worse, we will continue to see extreme natural disasters such as the forest fires in California occur,” said Ethan Tan ’20.

Global warming has attracted public concern in recent decades and public awareness has only increased.

However, Dr. LaDochy of the California State University explained that steps can be taken to lower the pollution levels and improve air quality, such as environmental regulations and the use of electric vehicles and renewable resources, providing a more optimistic outlook on the future.