Why Are There Fires In California? The State Is Particularly Vulnerable

This has been a particularly devastating year for fires in the state of California, with destructive blazes racing through both the northern and southern parts of the state. While this is drawing a lot of attention, however, it's not exactly new, as the Golden State has for years faced massive wildfires throughout the dry seasons, and increasingly, on a year-round basis, raising a very important question: Why do so many wildfires happen in California, and what, if anything, can be done to prevent them?

Earlier this year, Northern California endured one of the worst blazes in the state's history, a series of wildfires that burned down more than 200,000 acres and left a reported 43 people dead. That's been followed up by the harrowing and still-burning fires in the greater Los Angeles area this week, which so far have not led to any confirmed deaths, but have torched tens of thousands of acres.

The reason these sorts of wildfires tend to spread through California are fairly simple and predictable, as they're the same reasons any area might be prone to a fire breaking out. The environmental conditions in the state, especially in the dry summer months, are favorable to them.

As the New York Times detailed on Friday, part of the problem lies in the boom-or-bust cycle California's been experiencing in recent years as far as rainfall and drought are concerned. One of the effects climate change can have on the environment is to push seasonal weather conditions to the extremes, with extremely cold, wet, or freezing winters and extremely hot, dry summers.

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That's a cycle that absolutely primes a state like California, sprawling and covered in trees, grass, and bushes, for a terrible fire season. The winter downpours, in other words, lead to a surplus of vegetation, which then dry out under the summer sun and are extremely vulnerable to catching fire. The fact that the state is so expansive, and in some rural areas virtually uninhabited, also puts it at considerable risk. In relatively remote parts of the state, fires can get going and grow to considerable size before they're discovered.

Some parts of California are also home to powerful and rushing winds, which makes fires even harder to contain and keep from spreading. The current fires in and around Los Angeles, for example, have been aided by the notoriously strong Santa Ana winds. Also, as UCLA climate scientist Alex Hall told the Times, the fire season seems to have stretched clear into December in the southern reaches of the state.

"It's as if it is still summer in Southern California when it comes to fire risk," he reportedly said.

Of course, the actual causes of the wildfires may vary, as some are brought about by natural causes, and some by all-too human ones. According to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times last year, the vast majority of California wildfires over the past several years have been caused by human activity, not by environmental factors like lightning. In 2016, in fact, it found that 4,808 wildfires of varying sizes were started by people, compared to just 115 started by lightning.

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There's a long list of familiar culprits: people throwing lit cigarettes on the ground, starting campfires in high-risk areas or leaving them unattended, shooting off fireworks, and so forth. The analysis also included incidents of arson, but specifically noted that most wildfires are started unintentionally.

What this means, in simple terms, is that if you're interested in trying to combat or prevent wildfires like these from happening in the future, the best short-term way to make a difference on a personal level is to use whatever platforms you have to remind yourself, your friends, and even your acquaintances to exercise extreme caution when using flammable materials outdoors, especially in the dry summer months. And in the bigger, long-term sense, you might consider getting involved in activism or advocacy work aimed at slowing or halting the rate of climate change around the world.

In the meantime, however, California figures to be facing a lot more of these sorts of incidents. The number of fires the state endures on an annual basis is simply mind-boggling, and there's no reason to think that's going to change anytime soon.