The California Wildfires


Jane Merkle, Writer

At the end of last year, wildfires ravaged California. What has become known as The Camp Fire, located in Butte County near Sacramento, burned 153,336 acres and destroyed around 14,000 homes. It has been the worst fire in California history, displacing nearly 52,000 people. While the Camp Fire raged, a fire in Los Angeles County and Ventura County, the Woolsey Fire, grew to be one of the largest in Los Angeles history. Both fires are expected to exacerbate the current housing problem Los Angeles is already facing, with most of displaced people expected to either face homelessness or leave the state.

However, deplacement crisis is only one aspect of the cost of the wildfires. Because both wildfire took place in urban areas, they have a much more devastating environmental impact. The fires have burned chemicals in people’s homes including cleaning products and other household chemicals, when burned, are concentrated in the ash. The concentrated chemicals can harm people, if they breathe them in, and more than that can blow or wash into nearby water systems, likely harming the ecosystem and its inhabitants. The cleanup of such toxic ash is essential to the recovery of areas affected by fire, however at this time, the State of California has no plans in place to clean it up. While the government acknowledges that the cleanup needs to happen, they don’t seem to have a timetable or ideas of how to make this happen.

In the Bay Area, smoke from the Camp Fire hovered over the region for over two weeks. While the long term effects of breathing the toxic smoke are not known, studies have linked excessive air pollution to heart and lung disease. Fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, is the main pollutant from the smoke, is small enough to be inhaled, and on November 16th, the Bay Area laid claim to the worst air in the world. Those with previously existing conditions, especially lung related ones, have been most affected by the smoke. One of the reasons that the smoke was so bad in the Bay Area is that it is an urban area. Smoke becomes trapped in cities, and windflow is inhibited by buildings. Long term risks have not yet been documented, but multiple studies are ongoing as most experts predict an increase in incidents like these.

As huge, devastating wildfires like the Camp and Woolsey fires become more common, many people are evaluating the risk of staying in such a fire prone state. Just last year, fires devastated Sonoma County, also leaving smoke concentrated over the bay. Climate change has caused the wildfire season in California to become almost all year long, and has allowed immensely destructive fires to flourish. Last year’s fires in Sonoma were the worst the state had ever seen, and yet this year’s Woosley and Camp fires have become the worst the state has ever experienced. This pattern of destruction heralds the continuing apparent effects of global warming and climate change and spells out a dangerous future for all of us if something is not done to combat it.