In 2020, we witnessed and lived through a record breaking fire season. The largest, in fact, of California's modern history. Many of us were affected by the Blue Ridge, Silverado, and Bond fires that occurred in Orange County, whether we had to evacuate, deal with power outages, or endure poor air quality. All throughout California, people experienced similar struggles as some of our worst fires raged across the state. According to CAL FIRE, the August Complex fire in Northern California became our state's first “gigafire”, a term for fires that burn over a million acres. Five of California’s six largest fires on record took place in 2020, a fact which shows just how severe the fire season was.
Wildfires have a profound effect on the natural world. As we witnessed last year, they contribute to air pollution by creating clouds of smoke and ash that contain harmful pollutants including carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Once those pollutants settle, they can land in bodies of water or on land and later swept into watersheds after the next rain. This adds to the issue of water pollution which affects wildlife and humans alike. Another impact on ecosystems is soil erosion. After fires burn the plants that are holding the soil in place, the soil is easily eroded by wind or rain, sometimes causing mudslides. In addition, fires increase the levels of planet-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere both from the combustion process and the destruction of trees which hold CO2 inside them. Lastly, attempts to protect native species are undermined by fires since they reduce habitat and food resources as well as leave the ecosystem vulnerable to quick-growing invasives.
Despite their destructive nature, wildfires are a natural part of our ecosystems. Due to the hot and dry climate, low levels of precipitation, and summer dormant vegetation that serves as kindling, California has the perfect conditions for wildfires. Because of this, native wildlife has adapted to the regular wildfires that burn through their homes. To escape fires, birds and mammals run and fly away, small creatures like amphibians burrow into the ground, and some large animals like elk seek refuge in streams or lakes. Several plants, including the Chaparral Yucca, have underground root crowns that enable them to regrow after a fire. Others, like coast live oaks and laurel sumacs, are able to regenerate from the leftover trunks or branches.
Some species even depend on fires. The flames cause fungi like morel mushrooms to release spores and conifers like bishop and knobcone pines to open their cones and release seeds. The seeds of other species including ceanothus, manzanita, laurel sumac, and sugarbush begin to germinate after the heat of fires melt their outer coating. Predators like bears, raccoons, and raptors benefit by feeding on small creatures fleeing fires, and other animals such as mule deer and black-backed woodpeckers rely on burned areas to eat and nest. On top of these adaptations, fire makes an ecosystem more diverse, with different levels of succession and various ages of plants. This concept, termed pyrodiversity, allows ecosystems to support a wider variety of wildlife in diverse microhabitats.
However, fire seasons have been gradually worsening, making it difficult for even these fire-adapted and fire-dependent species. Recent years have seen hotter, faster, larger, and more uncontrolled fires. Our fire season, once five months long, is now stretched across seven months. The ten largest fires, since accurate records began in 1932, have all occurred after the year 2000. Several factors have helped cause this including population growth, climate change, and, although it’s counterintuitive, fire suppression. For over a century, California has implemented strict fire suppression, or the prevention of fires. While at first glance this appears beneficial, it actually makes fires more severe. When wildfires are suppressed, undergrowth and plant litter builds up making the next fire that occurs more extreme. Indigenous Californians understood this and often let wildfires burn or started them themselves. Along with our policy of fire suppression, population growth has an impact. More people means that development is spreading into areas that would regularly have fires and there is a higher risk of fires being started due to human error. Finally, climate change has contributed to the worsening fires by causing higher temperatures and more extreme droughts.
Aside from large scale solutions like new fire suppression policy, prescribed burns, and fighting climate change, there are some personal actions you can take to help our growing wildfire issues. Make sure you are cautious during the dry season if you hold any outdoor activities that involve fire pits, grills, candles, cigarettes, fireworks, etc. Remember that one loose spark could start a dangerous wildfire. You can also donate your time and money to wildlife rehabilitation centers that care for animals injured in fires or participate in a restoration project in a burned area. The next time you hear about a large, destructive wildfire, remember that it is not a one time incident, but part of a worsening pattern. Because humans have set this pattern in motion, it is our responsibility to return wildfires to the creators of regeneration and regrowth that they once were.