California’s wildfires break records, again

Smoke plume and evacuation from the 2018 Woolsey Fire

The smoke plume from the fast-moving Woolsey Fire encroaching on Malibu on Nov. 9, 2018, as residents evacuate along the Pacific Coast Highway. (Cyclonebiskit/Creative Commons)

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Climate, Natural Disasters, Public Health, Sustainability

Growing up, I have experienced more fire days than snow days. Between falling ash and orange, smoke-thick skies, we used to anticipate the inevitable morning call from school with the announcement canceling the school day.

Every year, the Santa Ana winds bring chapped lips, dry hands, and wildfires. The hot wind fuels the flames, spreading fires up and over mountains, close to towns, and threatening homes and businesses. It was typical that the fire would be out within about a week, leaving scorched, blackened earth behind. It’s not until recently that fires rage on for weeks at a time, causing extended evacuations, widespread structure damage, and threatening the lives of many.

In the fall of my first year at college in D.C., my hometown saw some of the worst fires to date: the Woolsey fire of November 2018. I had recently moved across the country and I was worried for my family. As the fires got closer to our home, I got the call that they would have to evacuate. 

For two weeks, my mother, father, sister, and two dogs were living in the cabin of a small boat that my family keeps. It was two weeks of worry and anxiety. There was a vacuum of information in our area, as no one was there to report on what was happening. We truly did not know if we would have a home to go back to. 

Fortunately, firefighters quelled the flames and were able to stabilize the area. My family was able to return home, though they had no running water, electricity, or cell reception, as the infrastructure had been damaged in the fire. Our neighbor, however, was not as fortunate, and their home burned, leaving only the chimney behind. Even now, almost two years later, that empty lot is a constant reminder of the damage that can be done. 

The week after my family returned home was Thanksgiving, when I flew home to smokey skies and a neighborhood that looked extraterrestrial. Trees were blackened and barely standing. Fences melted and scorched. Hills white with ash. 

The Woolsey Fire ravaged my community for 56 days, destroyed 1,643 structures, including homes and businesses, and damaged another 341. Wildfires create a horribly unique refugee situation within these communities, as many are rendered homeless and must choose to rebuild or relocate.

(Geospatial Technology and Applications Center, U.S. Forest Service, USDA)

The 2020 fires are the state’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th largest fires and have burned over 3 million acres in California and killed at least 24 people as the fires spread along the West Coast. This summer, California set record-breaking high temperatures, reaching up to 130 degrees F in Death Valley, according to NOAA. Year after year, California’s fires grow in size and bring even more extensive damage to buildings, homes, families, and communities. 

California, as well as Oregon and Washington, are experiencing the direct impacts of climate change. In the words of California Gov. Gavin Newsom at this summer’s Democratic National Convention, “If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.” 

As reported by The New York Times, Newsom said, “California is America in fast forward. What we’re experiencing right now is coming to communities all across the country.”

Nationwide, states have experienced record-breaking temperatures. Summer 2020 is ranked as the fourth hottest for the U.S. — the second hottest for the entire northern hemisphere — and is the driest one-third of summers on record for the U.S., according to data from NOAA. 

California should be viewed as an example to the rest of the country as to what will happen nationwide if we continue on our current course. Change is needed, and it is not an individual effort, as we see in the California fires, but rather a collective one.

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california, climate change, drought, natural disasters, santa ana winds, Wildfire

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