California’s Wildfire Crisis by Elena Oh

November 8th, 2019 marked the one year anniversary of the start of the Camp Fire that devastated Northern California, yet more fires continue to burn throughout the state to this day. From San Bernardino to rural Tehama County, wildfires have burned down homes, caused the separation of families, and ruined many lives. With so many of these fires starting, California is facing a crisis.

In San Bernardino, resident Matthew Valdiva awoke at 1 A.M. to the smell of smoke and the view of an orange glow from the Hillside Fire. After gathering his family and some neighbors, he joined over one thousand other Southern Californians escaping from the blaze. When he returned from the evacuation center, he found that his home had burned to the ground; it was one of the six that were destroyed by the fire. Firefighters arrived quickly on the site, and had the fire mostly contained by the afternoon. As the blaze continued to burn, residents living near the evacuation zones were encouraged to leave as the fire spread into surrounding neighborhoods. The fire was one hundred percent contained on November 6th.


The aftermath of the Hillside Fire in Valdiva’s neighborhood.

Even people living where the blazes were not active are concerned as well. Lissa Washburn, who lives outside of the evacuation zone for both the Hillside Fire and the nearby 46 Fire in Jurupa Valley, told The New York Times, “smoke is polluting the air at my house…it smells like fire outside, and our cars are covered in ash.” The 46 Fire started when a vehicle crashed into a dry field and caught fire. The flames quickly spread to nearby areas. Washburn worries about the danger of frequent power outages and strong, dry winds in the area. She says, “It’s been really scary…It’s a lot worse than it seems.” The San Bernardino County Fire Department is also concerned by the many fires that have happened in the area. Deputy Chief Kathleen Opliger says, “We’re competing for resources right now with several other fires.” Luckily, emergency responders have gotten the fire under control.

Persistent winds and extremely dry climates have been amongst some of the causes of California’s fires. The Santa Ana winds played a major part in the growth and spread of fires occurring particularly in southern California. These gusts, most common from October through March, can blow up to forty miles per hour. They descend from the Great Basin in Nevada when high pressure builds force air down towards the Pacific Ocean, making it more dry, compressed, and warm. As the air travels, the winds blow through canyons such as the Santa Ana Canyon. Additionally, the severe drought that California faces is a cause of the growing number of fires: lack of rain causes the dirt and plants to become much drier and thus easily flammable. 

Tehama County, near Chico, has not fared much better than San Bernardino. There, the Ranch Fire, which started on November 3rd, burned through approximately 2,534 acres of land. The fire was active in a rural area, which means that while fatalities and damage have been minimal, it has been very difficult for firefighters to reach the site. Three firefighters suffered injuries from complications due to smoke inhalation. Unlike San Bernardino, there were no strong winds in the area of the Ranch Fire. However, the extremely dry climate was only further fueling the fire as over one thousand firefighters work to contain it. As of November 14th, the fire was one hundred percent contained. 

With California constantly suffering from wildfires, officials are advising residents to do away with flammable objects, monitor campfires, and use lighting devices carefully in order to prevent fires from starting. When evacuating, officials recommend removing anything that could fuel the fire, such as gases or dry materials, and closing windows and doors to prevent a draft. Today, California is deemed the most fire-prone state in America. The National Geographic reports that in 2018, one of the most active years for wildfires, California lost about 1,823,153 acres of land to 8,054 wildfires. This year, there have been 6,402 wildfires thus far. For now, wildfires are a prominent threat to many Californians and will be for years to come. 

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