Aug. 15 marked the beginning of California’s elevated fire activity and, since then, there have been about 26 fatalities and 6,500 structures destroyed. The largest fires, near Mendocino National Forest, Santa Clara, and Napa Valley, have been 43 percent, 98 percent, and 98 percent cleared, respectively, with smaller — yet still large — fires ranging from 30 percent to 99 percent contained. The Bobcat Fire, located closest to Whittier in the Angeles Forest, is 15 percent contained as of Aug. 21, but it has scorched over 100,000 acres, making it one of the largest wildfires in L.A. County history.
There are about 27 major wildfires currently being fought in California, though there are technically about 560 total, spanning within all regions containing dry brush. As of Aug. 21, firefighters have contained the 50-acre Shackleford Fire in Siskiyou County, and have also made progress on other fires, including “18 new initial attack wildfires elsewhere in the State.”
California’s fire containment efforts are using prison labor, which has sparked controversy following the summer’s reports of numerous COVID-19 cases in California prisons and activism calling for inmates to be paid higher wages, as “inmates are often on the front line doing dangerous work and making low pay, between $2 and $5 per day, and $1 extra per hour when fighting a fire,” according to CNBC. Also, “the coronavirus has swept through correctional facilities and infected many vulnerable California inmates, leaving fewer available to help contain more than two dozen major fires and over 300 smaller ones.” Due to COVID-19 concerns, the state granted some inmates early release to slow the spread of the virus, causing the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to decrease it’s inmate fire crews by nearly half during the most dangerous part of wildfire season.
This shortage of firefighters is partly why the fires are difficult to contain, while prison labor reform is another factor. On Sept. 11, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2147, which accelerates the process for expunging the felony records of formerly incarcerated volunteer firefighters, beginning with easier access to an emergency medical technician certification, the first step in becoming a professional firefighter.
The cause of the fires has produced controversy as well. California’s hot, dry climate increases the likelihood of dry lightning strikes, which can cause fires when they hit similarly dried out plant life. Likewise, California’s abundant flammable plants, which have built up partly due to long-term refusal to controllingly burn the forest, spread the fire across larger amounts of land in an already highly-populated state. This high population is put at greater risk during fires, as people move out further into natural, non-urban areas, and their use of equipment, like weed whackers, creates debris that is highly flammable.
However, the biggest reason California’s fires are so damaging is because of a lack of action against climate change. Climate change has caused increased temperatures and less precipitation, which increases the amount of dry lightning setting fires in the first place. This, paired with repeals of environmental legislation and increasing amounts of unsustainable energy harvesting, which causes higher CO2 emissions, under the President Trump administration, further this climate change, which prolongs California’s dry, fire season.
Despite the fact that “people provide more than 90 percent of the sparks that start California’s wildfires,” the fact still remains that a spark is more likely to cause a fire in debris than none, and individual action is unlikely to change, especially without the government setting an example to do so. President Trump’s administration has instead solely blamed the build-up of forest debris for the frequent fires, refusing to acknowledge climate change as real. The President stated in a briefing on California wildfires that he “[does not] think science knows” if climate change is real and then proceeded to state that it would “start getting cooler.” During the same meeting. Governor Newsom mentioned that “57% of forests in California are controlled by the federal government, meaning the state’s local agencies couldn’t do much to prevent fires there even if they wanted to.”
Despite issues surrounding the frequent fires during California’s extended fire season, fires are continuing to be contained thanks to the state’s governmental response, federal aid, and slowly increasing firefighter numbers.
Feature image: Courtesy of AP Photo – Marcio Jose Sanchez.
Annalisse Galaviz is the News Editor for the Quaker Campus. She has worked for the paper since 2018 in former roles as a copy editor and news assistant. She likes writing about hard-hitting current events and, naturally, spends most of her time on political Twitter so she can do this. Assuming she has free time, she enjoys writing bad poems and fiction stories.