Nowhere in the world has received more attention about wildfires and their causes than California. Year after year, the state beats its own record of extreme wildfire activity with substantial loss of life and property. 2020 is no different and has set a new record for the most acres burned in California. This year’s wildfires, amidst a climate-change driven drought, have had a devastating impact on the environment and communities.
My own town, Oak Park in Ventura County, saw the tragedy of the Woolsey Fire in 2018. What started in the mid-afternoon sparked a mandatory evacuation for my entire community at 10:30 p.m. Later that night, the fire spread into Los Angeles County as Santa Ana winds blew through the area. In total, 97,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties burned in a few days. Three people died in Los Angeles County and more than 1,600 structures were destroyed, mostly homes, from Oak Park to Malibu. While it was devastating to see the fires rip through my town and destroy homes of friends I had grown up with, the fires throughout the state this year are the most widespread in California’s wildfire history. The state’s drought and record-breaking heat contributed to the wildfires where more than 2.2 million acres of California have burned.
According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, climate change has led to more intense droughts and directly correlates with this surge in catastrophic wildfires in California and throughout the country. As greenhouse gasses heat up the earth, we will continue to see more and bigger fires impact the environment and the well-being of humans. In fact, in California, the area of land burned each year has increased five-fold over the past 50 years according to a 2019 report by the American Geophysical Union.
How can we see a path forward? We’ve got to start with ourselves. Each of us can make a difference -- whether you are a student, a teacher, a scientist, an artist, or a politician. We must all understand how our actions contribute to climate change and we can contribute to the solution. We all need to get involved, and we all need to vote. This fall is my first opportunity to vote in the U.S. election and yes, even my vote - one college student in California - will make a difference. My vote will be a plea for policymakers to work toward a climate-friendly agenda and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
As stated at Climate.gov, high greenhouse gas emissions could increase fire frequency across the Southwest, including California, by 25 percent. The frequency of very large fires could triple. California’s wildfire problem deserves serious attention now. In order to diminish the devastating impact of wildfires on our lives, we must work together. Together, we can take the path forward and minimize the harmful effects that wildfires and climate change have on our planet.
Lily Paden, Co-founder, Forces of Nature