Triple Bottom Line: Where there’s smoke, there’s (record-breaking) wildfires

columnist graphic for Montana Denton fall 2020

Let’s be honest — California is the dream. Whether you have lived here your whole life or moved here for college, there’s nothing like basking in the Los Angeles sun and taking a deep, cleansing breath of that ubiquitous smoggy air. We live in constant fear of a massive earthquake, experienced an extreme statewide drought for nine straight years, and since January of this year, nearly 3.6 million acres of the state have been on fire. 

For comparison’s sake — one acre of land is just over 75% of the length of a football field. For my non-football-understanding readers, a more palatable visual likens one acre to 2,787,840 chicken nuggets. Regardless, an acre is a lot of land. Although our state’s record-breaking drought has technically ended, massive heat waves, weather, the pandemic and politics have led to one of the most extreme wildfire seasons the West Coast has ever seen. 

Walking on the University’s campus, breathing in the ashy air, and looking up at the crimson sun and hazy gray sky is almost nostalgic. Growing up in San Diego, I was evacuated from my house in 2007 when the Witch Creek fire burned over 300 houses in my hometown alone. Fires and extreme heat have caused power outages in my town, and I’ve had to pack my belongings in case of an evacuation more than once. 

Fires are an integral part of the western United States, but the rapidly increasing pattern of extreme blazes should not be. While California has a historically dry, Mediterranean climate with gusty winds and low humidity, there is no denying that the changing climate has only made the state more prone to large fires. Hotter and drier temperatures year-round result in less moisture for vegetation, creating the classic dry California brush that ignites at the smallest spark. Less rainfall means reduced snowpack on mountaintops and lessened stream flow, causing intense dry seasons and only further priming our already-parched lands for fire. 

According to The New York Times, nine out of 10 of the largest fires in California history have occurred in the past 10 years, and nine out of 10 of the hottest years on record have happened since 2000. Most of California’s rain falls from October to April, and rising global temperatures and lower annual rainfall averages mean that vegetation is growing and drying out more quickly, providing perfect fuel for the flames. Fire season is no longer an open-and-closed chapter of the year. 

It’s key to remember that fires have always been an essential part of California’s ecology. Periodic wildfires can clear out dry and decaying vegetation, adding nutrients back into the soil. However, with the expansion of the human population and dwellings in these areas, natural fires are suppressed, and fuel for the fires is accumulated. Not only does this increase the likelihood of a blaze, but it also increases the damages and costs inflicted as more property burns. This issue was apparent in the 2018 Woolsey fire in Malibu, as the expensive homes built into the dry mountains overlooking the ocean essentially added to the kindling around it, causing many to lose their homes.

While California has some of the most ambitious and restrictive emissions policies in the country, these efforts are being undermined by the amount s of carbon dioxide and pollutants that waft into the atmosphere during a fire. The smoke, ash and bad air quality from these blazes have been spread by wind as far away as Northern Europe; the aerosols can even be detected by satellites from space. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index tracks the amounts of five major pollutants in the air — ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and airborne particles — and measures the overall quality of the air on a scale from 0 to 500, dividing the system into six levels based on the extremity of health concern. 

Opening up my air quality index app is a humbling experience. In L.A. County, it’s common for the AQI to reach a value between 101-150, or “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” but the number of 151-200 “unhealthy” values in the past few weeks due to the smoke in the air has been troubling. Pollution from aerosols (and smoke particulates!) not only aggravates conditions like asthma but can also cause burning eyes, runny noses, heart and lung disease — and this harmful pollution is spreading far beyond California, decreasing air quality around the world and compounding the respiratory effects of the coronavirus.

Allowing for more controlled burns in open areas and tree and brush trimming in critical zones is crucial, as is establishing greater accountability for essential gas and electric companies such as Pacific Gas & Electric, which averages responsibility for at least one fire a day in California. Gov. Gavin Newsom also recently signed Assembly Bill 2147, which allows inmates who work as incarcerated firefighters to have their criminal records expunged so that they can pursue firefighting after they have finished their sentences.

Reforming California’s land-use legislation to prevent construction in the highest-risk areas and creating stricter building codes are other relatively simple and non-intrusive ways of implementing substantive change. Effective codes and regulations to mitigate wildfires can’t be put into place without acknowledging the science of the situation. But with the rate at which the West Coast is burning, more extreme global measures must be taken. 

Apocalyptic orange skies, power shutoffs and air so choked with particulates that it’s hazardous to step outside your house seem fitting for 2020, but there is no reason for this to be the new normal. Forest fires are inevitable, and California’s climate and natural landscape provide the perfect kindling. However, the world, the U.S. and California alike are far from where they need to be in terms of emissions reductions and preventative climate change measures — and the effects of this reality are impossible to ignore. While it may be more complicated and arduous, federal policies must indeed adhere to scientific fact. 

While effective fire prevention and recovery are undoubtedly essential, the problem needs to be addressed at the source. Whether you’re an environmentalist or a climate change denier, there’s no ignoring that the increasing levels of physical destruction, adverse health effects and upheaval caused by California’s extensive wildfire season are simply one byproduct of a worldwide climate emergency that needs to be more aggressively addressed.

Montana Denton is a junior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.