Case Study: The California Wildfires


According to the U.S. National Park Service, almost 85% of all wildfires are started by people. Whether it be a campfire someone turned their back on, a dropped cigarette, arson, or a mechanical failure, people start an average of over 60,000 wildfires in the U.S. every year that burn an average of 2.4 million acres of land.

Traditionally, wildfires have not been a force of destruction, but rather one for life. Historically, low intensity wildfires occurred naturally to clear out underbrush and restore nutrients back into the ecosystem, creating fertile earth for new vegetation to grow in that allowed wildlife to flourish. Some vegetation even requires fire to germinate their seeds and allow the plant to grow. Native Americans would also utilize what is called controlled burns to clear out unneeded underbrush and continue the cycle of life.

A controlled burn. Photo by Ron King, from Flickr.

However, in the late 1800s, fire suppression became a far more popular tactic than controlled burns. Timber industries feared that forest fires would wipe out their product, and pushed for protection for the forest; in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created to protect forests from wildfires and suppress any that started as soon as possible. This practice has continued today and remains the norm. By not allowing smaller fires to burn, underbrush and/or decaying material that would have otherwise been cleared are allowed to build up, acting as fuel for any potential wildfire that may crop up. Due to fire suppression, wildfires are allowed more material to burn, spreading faster and burning more intensely than they otherwise would.

California, in particular, is a state that is extremely susceptible to wildfires. While much of northern California is covered in forests, southern California is characterized by the desert and chaparral biomes. The desert brings hot, dry heat, and the chaparral biome is characterized by dry, hot summers that bring wildfires and mild and wet winters. For reference, Los Angeles is right in the middle of the largest chaparral biome in California.

Woolsey Fire. Photo by the Lose Angeles Fire Department, from Flickr.

While wildfires are generally a normal part of chaparral-covered areas, in recent years California wildfires have become a more significant threat. Out of the ten most massive wildfires California has ever seen, nine of them have been in the last 16 years. Why? You guessed it, climate change.

Like many other areas in the world, climate change is creating a hotter and drier California. Although California today has been officially cleared as drought-free for the first time in over seven years, southern California remains drier than usual . This situation makes California very susceptible to more significant and destructive fires.

Woolsey Fire. Photo by Los Angeles Fire Department, from Flickr.

The disastrous effects of this on urban areas can be seen when examining the Woolsey Fire, which was ignited on November 8, 2018, in Boeing land on the line of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The fire burned through nearly 100,000 acres of land, destroyed over 1,600 structures, killed three people, wounding five, and resulted in the evacuation of around 300,000 people. The wildfire burned until November 21 and create $6 billion worth of damages, including damages to over 400 homes, ranches, rehabilitation centers, several filming sites, and national parks. Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, told an Intelligencer reporter that “there [was] no number of helicopters or trucks that we [could] buy, no number of firefighters that we [could] have, no amount of brush that we [could] clear that [would] stop this. The only thing that will stop this is when the Earth, probably long after we’re gone, relaxes into a more predictable weather state.”

Much of the humanitarian work that came as a result of the Woolsey Fire was done by individuals helping one another out. While California’s population is growing at a slow rate, Los Angeles is still the most densely populated city in the country, and the county as a whole is projected to have a population of 11.5 million by 2060. We can expect to see more wildfires of this caliber in the coming years, strengthened by climate change. We can only expect more humanitarian work to be done in California as a result of climate change fueled wildfires in the coming years.

Written by Alexandra Huelbig, Innovation and Design Intern, Summer 2019

About the IIHA
The Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA) prepares current and future aid workers with the knowledge and skills needed to respond effectively in times of humanitarian crisis and disaster. Our courses are borne of an interdisciplinary curriculum that combines academic theory with the practical experience of seasoned humanitarian professionals. The IIHA also publishes on a wide range of humanitarian topics and regularly hosts a number of events in the New York area, including the annual Humanitarian Blockchain Summit and Design for Humanity Summit.

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