Californian Wildfires 2020

Sustainable land management is an important part of living with nature. Very often past generations knew more about this than current generations.

Californian Wildfire: Photo Credit - NY Times
Californian Wildfire: Photo Credit – NY Times

Media articles are carrying the story of mega Californian wildfires caused by climate change. But are they? Could there be other factors? Cal Fire statistics show us that 17 (85%) of the top 20 recorded largest wildfires have occurred over the last 20 years. It is accepted that ‘climate change’, in terms of recent warmer weather, will have dried out the fire-load (brush and deadwood) quicker and increased frequency of adverse wind conditions are all obviously a factor, but is the change in habitat management a significant factor as well?

Many of the ecosystems, from the chaparral of Southern California to the northern pine forests have evolved to burn frequently. Such habitats are naturally prone to wildfires and the flora and fauna are adapted to such environmental norms. The problem is that humans are not so good living with such wildfires.

The Cal Fire data on how these wildfires started shows: 25% were human factors; 20% were lightning strikes; 15% were powerlines; and, 40% are still unknown.

Academics believe that in prehistoric California between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year due to natural wildfires. Native Americans and settlers understood how to live with nature rather than to fight it, and have often used controlled burning to manage their lands. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. These controlled fires reduced the naturally accumulated ‘fire load’ of brush and deadwood to protect neighbourhoods and forestry. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. So if 85% of the top 20 recorded largest wildfires have occurred over the last 20 years – could the change in land management during this same period be a significant factor?

It is always important that we do not think about such issues with a ‘silo-mentality’ and assume that climate change is the only possible factor. It is highly likely that it is a combination of land management and climate changes and perhaps even other factors, that have resulted in worsening wildfires.

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