Wildfires in California: Our wake up call

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Written by: Lydia Forde

Figure 1. A sign surrounded by flames warning the public about COVID-19 near Lake Berryessa in Napa, California on the 18th of August 2020. [1] Josh Edelson-AFP/GettyImages Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires burn in unincorporated Napa County, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. The blaze went on to destroy multiple homes near Lake Berryessa. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

August and September of 2020 will be forever etched into the memories of Californians as devastating wildfires burnt out of control and destroyed more than 4.2 million acres of land. [2] These are recorded as the worst wildfires in the state’s history and alongside the COVID-19 global pandemic, was a deadly concoction of helplessness and destruction.

Although California does have a history of forest fires in the summer seasons, the number and intensity of these fires is increasing. Recent studies have shown that there has been more than an eight-fold increase in summer forest fires in California over the years 1972 to 2018.[3]

Wildfires are often started naturally by lightning strikes or by human activity on already dry areas of forests, grasslands, savannas and so on. However, the weather plays a large part in determining how much the fire will grow and spread. [4] As our climate is warming due to rising emissions of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, extreme weather events and intense variations in temperature are becoming more frequent. [5]

Figure 2. A cow near flames of the 2013 Rim Fire close to the Yosemite National Park border in Groveland, California. [6] Noah Berger, EPA.

Not to mention, these fires have huge impacts on wildlife. Some species of animals such as Australia’s fat-tailed dunnarts and Gould’s long-eared bats, have evolved to survive wildfire seasons by using certain mechanisms to detect the fire before fleeing [7]. Despite this, the inability to escape, the destruction of habitats, and forced migration can be fatal. [8] Increased numbers of wildfires can also lead to changes in forestry systems. Research has shown decreased regeneration in forests after frequent fires and that forest ecosystems tend to convert to other forms such as shrubbery and grassland in order to adapt to the new conditions. These new environments could push out native species of animal and plant that may not be able to adapt as well as invasive species. [8][9]

Wildfires also have large social impacts. They are known to negatively affect the mental and physical health of individuals, especially those who are more vulnerable. [10] In addition, major climate events such as wildfires create heavy debts on countries’ economies. For example, the average yearly cost of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s fire suppression emergency fund from 2010 to 2019 rose to $401 million (USD). [11]

California’s 2020 fire season, along with many other climate change induced severe weather events; is a wake up call and a reminder that these events will only worsen if we don’t cap carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. [12] This issue is not just stuck to California, climate change will lead to more wildfires in most areas around the globe.[13] Developed countries may be able to recover from these events for some time but not all countries will have the funding to cope. This will force not only wildlife species to flee from their habitats, but humans too. In order to lessen the impacts of these events, we need to act now. We need to make changes in the present day so we don’t leave a carbon dioxide ridden earth without forests for our future generations.


[1] COVID-19 Could Threaten Firefighters as Wildfire Season Ramps Up. [A sign warning people about COVID 19 is surrounded by flames during the Hennessey fire near Lake Berryessa in Napa, California]. (2020). Time. Photo by: Josh Edelson-AFP/GettyImages. https://time.com/5881188/wildfire-season-coronavirus/

[2] 2020 Incident Archive, 2020 Fire Season.(2021).CAL FIRE. https://www.fire.ca.gov/incidents/2020/

[3] Williams A., Abatzoglou J., Gershunov A., Guzman-Morales J., Bishop D., Balch J. & Lettenmaier D. (2019). Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California. Earth’s Future. 7(2019). 892-910. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EF001210

[4] Wildfires-Resource Library, Encyclopedic Entry. (2019). National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/wildfires/

[5] Climate Change Indicators: Weather and Climate. (2020). United States Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/weather-climate

[6] What do wild animals do in wildfires? (2020). [A cow walks by flames from the Rim fire near the Yosemite National Park border in Groveland, California, on August 24, 2013]. Photo by Noah Berger, EPA. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/150914-animals-wildlife-wildfires-nation-california-science

[7] Animals have an astounding response to bush fire. These are the tricks they use to survive. (2020). ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-08/animal-response-to-bushfire-how-they-survive/11848948

[8] What Happens to Wildlife During a Wildfire? (2019). National Forest Foundation. https://www.nationalforests.org/blog/what-happens-to-wildlife-during-a-wildfire

[9] Stevens-Ruhmann C., Kemp K., Higuera P., Harvey B., Rother M., Donato D., Morgan P. & Veblen T. (2017). Evidence for declining forest resilience. Ecology Letters. 21 (2018). 243-252. https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.12889

[10] Wong-Parodi G., 2020. When climate change adaptation becomes a “looming threat” to society: Exploring views and responses to California wildfires and public safety power shutoffs. Energy Research and Social Science.70 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2020.101757

[11] The Spiralling Cost of California’s Wildfires. (2020). Statista. https://www.statista.com/chart/19807/california-wildfire-emergency-fund-expenditure/

[12] Major Greenhouse Reductions needed by 2050:IPCC. (2014). Climate Central. https://www.climatecentral.org/news/major-greenhouse-gas-reductions-needed-to-curtail-climate-change-ipcc-17300

[13] Rongbin X., Pei Y., Abramson M., Johnston F., Samet J., Bell M., Haines A., Ebi K., Li S. & Yuming G. (2020) Wildfires, Global Climate Change, and Human Health. The New England Journal of Medicine. 383 (2020) 2173-2181. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsr2028985