by Danny Ortega
"William Goggia awoke to a poisonous orange atmosphere so thick with smoke he couldn't see the sun. It was 8 am on Thursday, November 8. He heard the piercing metallic clang of propane tanks exploding in the distance." (Gee). Wildfires in California have escalated to become a perennial threat, exacerbated by a confluence of factors, including climate change, urban sprawl, and forest mismanagement. Annually, these infernos consume thousands of acres, destroy homes, disrupt lives, and inflict substantial economic losses. In the past decade, California has seen a dramatic increase in the frequency and scale of wildfires, with record-breaking fire seasons becoming the new norm. In 2020, over 4.1 million acres of land burned, a historic high, causing $12 billion in damages and tragically claiming lives. The economic toll on the state, including firefighting costs, is crippling, straining resources and budgets.
Nature Fire Factor
In regions prone to wildfires, climate conditions, and vegetation types play a pivotal role in shaping the landscape's susceptibility to these destructive phenomena. As Akinde aptly notes, "The climate also influences the type of vegetation that grows in this region. Dry grasses, shrubs, and pine needles are highly flammable. Combine this with the already dry weather, and you have all the fuel needed to start a fire." (Akinde 5). The combustibility of these vegetation types is exacerbated by the dry weather conditions prevalent in such areas. The lack of moisture in the vegetation, coupled with arid weather, creates an abundance of fuel for potential wildfires. This emphasizes the necessity of comprehensive wildfire prevention strategies that consider the specific environmental factors unique to each region.
Human Fire Factor
As California's population continues to surge, the looming threat of wildfires intensifies, with human activities emerging as a significant catalyst for these destructive events. Akinde examines the magnitude of humans on wildfires, "The increase in the population of California over the past years is a major contributor to the occurrence of wildfires. Human infrastructures such as power lines and trains often provide the spark wildfires need to start. People may also cause fires directly through campfires, tossed cigarettes, cars backfiring, and other similar factors. Wherever humans live, the potential of fires occurring increases." (Akinde 11-12). Akinde shows the profound impact of human presence on the wildfire landscape, shedding light on how our infrastructures and behaviors, both deliberate and inadvertent, contribute to the ignition and propagation of these devastating events. There is a deeper exploration into the complex dynamics between human activity and the heightened vulnerability of California to wildfires. Akinde urges a comprehensive understanding of the role we play in this pressing environmental challenge.
Senate Bill 474
Current policies to combat wildfires in California encompass a wide array of strategies, from emergency response protocols to land-use regulations. Policymakers have attempted various strategies with senate bills, "The most recent attempt—SB 474—sought to mitigate this substantial risk with a broad, top-down approach. The bill, had it passed, would have instituted a ban on all residential and commercial development across large areas of the state." (O'Connell 345-346). This approach reflects the acknowledgment of the severe wildfire risks posed by urban sprawl and the expansion of human settlements into fire-prone regions. The bill's proponents likely believed that curbing development in these areas would reduce the risk of wildfires spreading to densely populated regions, thus protecting lives and property. It aimed to break the cycle of wildfires affecting newly developed areas, a cycle exacerbated by factors such as housing density, location along the perimeter of development, and fire history. However, the approach could have sparked debates regarding property rights, economic development, and access to affordable housing. It could have faced opposition from those who argued that such a ban might be overly restrictive and impact the livelihoods of individuals and communities in areas where development was halted. Additionally, questions may arise about how the state would address the existing properties in these regions and whether residents would be displaced or compensated.
Assembly Bill 1516
Policymakers have also responded another way to the growing concern over wildfire risks. Policymakers have made proactive legislation with the introduction of, "Assembly Bill 1516 [which] sought to 'make various changes to vegetation clearance requirements' and implement a state-run 'pilot volunteer training program' to assess properties' fire preparedness." (O'Connell 351). By proposing various changes to vegetation clearance requirements, the bill acknowledges that overgrown or poorly managed vegetation can fuel wildfires and contribute to their rapid spread. The proposed changes likely aimed to ensure that residents and property owners take responsible steps to reduce the risk of wildfires. This aspect of the bill reflects a more granular, on-the-ground approach, acknowledging the importance of individual property owners in mitigating wildfire risk. However, the effectiveness of such changes would depend on their enforcement and compliance. Volunteers, adequately trained by the state, could play a crucial role in evaluating the safety and readiness of properties in high-risk areas. Such an approach might not only improve the overall preparedness but also foster a sense of community involvement and shared responsibility in wildfire prevention. Despite that, the quality and consistency of training, the engagement of volunteers, and the coordination with local authorities are essential aspects to consider. The program would also need to strike a balance between offering valuable insights and recommendations to property owners while respecting their autonomy and property rights.
There is, as well, an evident risk in California's placement of houses. A striking correlation between housing arrangement and location, and the heightened fire risk is shown by, "Analysis of hundreds of homes that burned in southern California the last decade showed that housing arrangement and location strongly influence fire risk, particularly through housing density and spacing, location along the perimeter of development, slope, and fire history ." (Syphard par 6). Densely clustered housing in fire-prone areas significantly elevates the risk of wildfire incidents. The lack of sufficient space between structures may facilitate the rapid spread of fires, making it challenging for firefighters to contain them. Also, urban planning and land-use regulations must consider the proximity of housing to undeveloped, fire-prone regions to mitigate this risk. Properties situated on steep slopes are not only susceptible to rapid fire spread but may also present challenges for firefighting efforts. Lastly, the research suggests that areas with a history of fires are more likely to experience future incidents, emphasizing the need for careful consideration of past fire records when planning and regulating new developments in fire-prone regions and or stricter building codes and zoning restrictions in high-risk zones. Emergency response will and has improved with advanced technology and coordination. Zoning regulations are possibilities to help prevent new construction in highly fire-prone areas but existing policies often lack enforcement mechanisms. Limited funding and resources hamper proactive measures like controlled burns.
Increased Funding for Wildfire Prevention Measures
Major investments in California's power grid can reduce long-term fire risk. Major utility companies like PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric Company) are taking monumental steps toward fire risk reduction, affirming, "PG&E alone plans to spend over $18 billion in the next three years on a variety of initiatives, including advancement of a sweeping 2021 proposal to bury 10,000 miles of overhead distribution lines, mostly in high fire-risk areas." (Hering par 5). PG&E aims to eliminate a significant source of ignition, as downed power lines during high-wind events have been known to start numerous devastating wildfires in the past. Burying overhead lines could become a standard practice, reducing a known fire risk and minimizing the potential for power line-sparked wildfires. Additionally, California grapples with the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires, the utility industry's commitment to such substantial investments is in harmony with broader state initiatives, emphasizing the collective responsibility of various stakeholders in protecting communities from fire disasters.
Technology Against Wildfires
California can further prevent future wildfires with evolving technologies. Innovation and technology are heralding new possibilities in safeguarding the state's critical electrical infrastructure, "Wildfire Grid Resiliency Act, which would allocate $10,000,000 for the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop technologies to mitigate wildfire-related electrical grid damage. The legislation authorizes the Secretary of Energy to provide grants to the DOE National Laboratories for projects to protect power grids from fire damage, monitor vegetation management, and protect first responders." (Norma Torres par 1). The allocation of $10,000,000 for the development of technologies to mitigate wildfire-related electrical grid damage signifies a commitment to innovation. As wildfires increasingly threaten power infrastructure, harnessing cutting-edge technology becomes paramount. This investment may lead to the creation of advanced monitoring and protective systems to reduce the vulnerability of the electrical grid to fire-induced disruptions. The legislation authorizes the Secretary of Energy to provide grants for projects aimed at protecting power grids from fire damage as the electrical grid's significance in the modern world and the imperative to shield it from the ravages of wildfires. Projects funded through these grants may include fire-resistant infrastructure and grid-hardening measures.
This case study has delved into the profound challenge of California's wildfires, spotlighting the personal experiences of individuals like John Smith and the broader impact on the state. We've examined current policies and proposals, discussing their strengths and weaknesses. The California wildfire crisis serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for proactive, comprehensive, and sustainable policies in the face of climate change. It challenges us to consider the delicate balance between development and nature and underscores the vital importance of safeguarding our communities and environment. "We cannot underestimate what they can do to the community and what they can do to the people we love." (Honda).
Akinde, A. (2022, October 15). Why does California have so many wildfires?. A-Z Animals. https://a-z-animals.com/blog/why-doe...any-wildfires/
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"Congresswoman Torres Reintroduces Wildfire Grid Resiliency Act." Congresswoman Norma Torres, May 23 2023, torres.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congresswoman-torres-reintroduces-wildfire-grid-resiliency-act. Accessed October 25 2023.
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