The California Wildfires: Mismanagement and Climate Change

North Complex fire. Credit: DAKennedy, CC-BY-SA 4.0 (source)

As of September 28, Red Flag warnings remain in place over much of Northern California, due to gusty winds and dry heat. There are still 27 major wildfires raging, with two new ones erupting just yesterday. Since the beginning of the year, the state has seen more than 8,100 wildfires, burning over 3.75 million acres. In just the last month and a half, at least 29 people have died, and over 7,000 structures have been destroyed.

Currently, more than 66,000 Californians are under evacuation orders because of wildfires, about 54,000 of them due to the two latest fires, the Zogg Fire and the Glass Fire. As of today, these two fires are zero percent contained. Just as we thought we were getting fires under control, we were shown that there is no reprieve when heat waves and land mismanagement are the norm.

Between 1982 and 1998, California’s land agency burned about 30,000 acres a year to prevent uncontrolled wildfires. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to 13,000 acres. Today, to restabilize the land for fire risk, California would need to burn a massive 20 million acres. So these fires are partly a result of neglect – planning fires helps maintain the health of a forest and prevent wildfires. Without this important controlled burn, destructive wildfires are inevitable.

Combine this mismanagement with the hotter and drier climate created by climate change, and you’ve got the worst fire season in California history, with the worst air quality in decades. And fire season hasn’t even peaked yet!

Add in one more factor – COVID – and it truly feels like we’re living in an apocalyptic nightmare. Now going to evacuation centers means escaping fire risk, but also accepting the risk of COVID exposure. Plus, smoke, heat, and COVID have created a perfect storm of risk for those with underlying health conditions, putting more lives at risk.

And the most angering part of all of this? If preventative measures had been taken, and true efforts made to combat climate change, we would not be in this situation today. The same politicians responsible for the pathetic response to COVID can also be blamed for the devastating impacts of these fires. People and our environment are clearly not a priority. The politicians have prioritized the profits of corporations above all else, neglecting programs that manage land or protect public health, and enriching the One Percent that already gets rich off our backs.

The politicians and their business friends have provided us protections and safety measures only when we’ve fought for them, and the time is now to fight again. But this time, we can’t let them decide what needs to be done. We need to decide for ourselves.