How much do you really know about wildfires in California? The Western U.S. is enduring an unprecedented fire year, and one thing's clear: the fires we face today are different from the fires of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
From public health in the smoke plume to remote-controlled hobby aircraft interfering with firefighting efforts to instant access to information via social media, life in fire country is ever changing.
Here are ten important facts about wildfires in the Golden State. How many did you know?
- There are two distinct wildfire seasons in California: ones driven by Santa Ana winds (usually October to April) and ones generally exacerbated by heat in the summer months (usually June to September). Santa Ana fires spread more quickly, while non-Santa Ana fires spread more slowly and are considered less intense, though they can burn longer.
- Climate change will probably worsen wildfires, but wildfires can also make climate change worse. When undisturbed, forests and wildlands capture and store millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere in California; wildfires release carbon back into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. An April 2015 study by the National Park Service and UC Berkeley, published in Forest Ecology and Management, showed that five to seven percent of carbon emissions between 2001 and 2010 came from wildfires.
- Look forward to more burned-over landscapes in California. A September 2015 paper published in Environmental Research Letters by scientists from the University of California predicts that California land burned by wildfires will increase in the coming decades. By comparing temperature, wind, and relative humidity in the present climate with projections from five different global climate models, they are able to project that area burned by Santa Ana fires will increase by 64 percent; and the area burned by non-Santa Ana fires will increase by 77 percent. Factors that point to this increase: an increase in more intense Santa Ana winds and an increase in temperatures, both due to climate change.
- Does it seem like there are more wildfires than in previous years? There are. 2014 saw 1,000 more wildfires than average. 2015 is already an above-average year for wildfires in California, with more than 100,000 acres already burned by August.
- The current fire season has officials worried. In August 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to help fight the current wildfires raging across the state.
- You can track current fires online. CalFire's Ready For Wildfire website is a great place to start. CalFire also maintains a statewide Google map that shows you where wildfires are burning. And to check the spread of fires in progress and learn more detail than the maps make available, the inter-agency Inciweb site is an invaluable resource.
- Few things are as destructive to property as wildfire. Since 1990, more than 17,000 homes and other structures have been damaged or destroyed by wildfires in California.
- We pay a lot for firefighting. California's 2014 wildfire budget of $209 million ran out at the end of September last year.
- Smoke from wildfires is a public health problem. In addition to causing burning eyes, a scratchy throat, and runny nose, particulate matter present in wildfire smoke can cause bronchitis and premature death for those with heart, respiratory, and lung conditions. Another cause for concern: the presence of carbon monoxide in smoke.
- A new and unexpected challenge for firefighters: drones. Fire officials were forced to ground aircraft responding to the Lake Fire in San Bernardino County in July 2015 after drones entered the air space. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded with a public information video entitled "If You Fly, We Can't". They're calling on the public to report onlookers flying drones near wildfire and disaster areas (1-844-DRONE11).