Pale Blue Dot: California wildfires are a new normal and the state must adjust

Jessie Chang | Daily Trojan

Saturday marked the first day of autumn, and as much as the 85-degree temperatures over the weekend seem to suggest otherwise, October is only a week away. It’s time to get ready for fall — start planning Halloween costumes, putting up decorative gourds and worrying about wildfires engulfing Los Angeles, lining the highways with hellish walls of flame and filling the sky with ash so thick that downtown is hardly visible from the USC campus. Wait, that last one might just be a personal thing.  

But unlike most of my anxious fears of natural disasters (I grew up in Washington, a state marked by its earthquakes, volcanoes and widespread neuroticism), the autumn wildfire season in California is actually worth worrying about and planning for. Students only need to think back to Fall 2017’s finals week, when the Skirball fire burned through 422 acres of the Bel-Air neighborhood, shutting down I-405 and canceling UCLA classes, to see the impact that wildfires can have on our generally isolated, urbanized life. As the region heads into another wildfire season, it is important that we recognize the threat wildfires pose and take action to prevent them as often as possible.

Now at this point you might be thinking, “Wait, didn’t wildfire season just end?” The answer is yes, sort of. A 2015 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters divides Southern California’s wildfires into two seasons: the summer season, from June to September, and the Santa Ana winds wildfire season from October to April. 2018’s summer season just wrapped up, and was widely reported as the worst in recent times. The Mendocino and Carr fires are among the largest fires in California’s recorded history.

As of Saturday, 1,344,079 acres of land have already burned in 2018, according to statistics from CAL FIRE and the National Forest Service, compared to 1,248,606 acres in 2017. In other words, there has been more fire damage in approximately three-quarters of 2018 than in the entirety of 2017. The National Interagency Coordination Center lists the potential of large-scale fire as “above normal” in about half of the regions of the state during October and November of 2018, so the number of total acres burned is likely to rise even higher. Remember that at the end of 2017, news reports were calling it the worst year on record — just as they do nearly every year. At this point, it feels futile to apply superlatives to wildfire seasons, because they will inevitably be topped.

The causes of this seemingly endless rise are complicated. Fires are a natural part of every forest’s life cycle, clearing out dead wood and regenerating the soil. But as California became more densely inhabited, these essential smaller fires were often suppressed, leading to overgrown trees and brush. When drought conditions — exacerbated by climate change — began to grip the state, much of this biomass dried up, making forests into acres of kindling that can be set ablaze by lightning strikes, industrial fires and stray campfire sparks. Stimuli that decades earlier would have caused a small manageable fire now create the fast-moving infernos that the state dealt with over the summer. In many ways, wildfires make Californians of today pay for the mistakes of their forebears, like so many of the effects of climate change and industrialization. A certain amount of fire is inevitable, and at a certain point the only thing residents can do is try to prevent new fires and keep themselves safe.

Meanwhile, those tasked with protecting Californians, the Forest Service and local fire departments, have budgets that hardly cover the costs of dealing with this year’s fires, much less preventing next year’s. In early September, the state firefighting agency pleaded with legislators for an additional $234 million to make it to June of 2019, after spending $432 million in July and August alone. The request was granted, marking the eighth time in the last 10 years that the state has had to dip into budget reserves to fund firefighting efforts. Clearly, some major budget adjustments are in order for the coming years.

In August, Gov. Jerry Brown called the state’s wildfires “the new normal that we have to face,” and I am inclined to agree with him. The sad truth is that there is not much an individual can do to prevent wildfires. An endless wildfire season may be the new normal, and the most that residents can do is support their fire departments, listen to evacuation orders and be careful with outside flame. Of course, every person should heed the mantra of Smokey the Bear, but the numbers show that California surpassed the “only you can prevent forest fires” era long ago.

Kylie Harrington is a junior majoring in journalism. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Pale Blue Dot,” runs every other Monday.