Effects of wildfires are felt in California, beyond

Fires caused evacuations, highlight environmental issues

Andrea Lee

Contributing Writer

Earlier this month, smoke from wildfires cast an orange haze in Southside Berkeley. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDREA LEE.

Last week in the San Francisco Bay Area, along with other cities across the West Coast,  the skies filled with smoke, and the world looked as if a sepia-toned filter had been cast overnight. California is at the very beginning of its fire season, yet six of 2020’s fires have already burned their ways into the top 20 list of California’s largest historical conflagrations

As evidenced by the numerous blazes caused by last month’s lightning storms, catastrophic fires are not always sparked by humans. But when we look at the overall trends of increasing heat, prolonged drought, and the ensuing dryness and accumulation of combustible, desiccated vegetation, the data demonstrates a clear pattern. Increasingly, severe fires can be traced to human causation exacerbated by conditions brought on by climate change, almost as clearly as a spark from a power line or a gender reveal mechanism gone wrong.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), as of Sept. 21, there have been 7,982 wildfires that have burned more than 3,627,010 acres of land, destroyed 7,097 structures, and caused 25 fatalities in the state alone. 

In August, humid air from Tropical Storm Fausto collided with the arid climate typical of California summers. This caused the unusual lightning storm that set ablaze numerous pockets of fires, which quickly merged as high winds spread the flames across an abundance of dried vegetation, creating what is now referred to as the CZU Complex, the LNU Lightning Complex, and the SCU Lightning Complex fires. 

These three-letter acronyms come from Cal Fire, which operates based on a division of counties. The SCU unit covers Santa Clara, Alameda, San Joaquin, Contra Costa, and Stanislaus Counties. CZU accounts for San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and parts of San Francisco, and LNU includes Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Colusa, Solano, and Yolo Counties. Typically, a fire is named after a landmark or geographical feature, but these fires are so widespread and multilocational that a single landmark does not suffice as a reference point.

The ongoing pandemic further complicates the situation as evacuation centers have had to be revamped to accommodate for COVID-19 compliant operations. The coronavirus has also confounded fire-fighting efforts. Historically, Cal Fire enlisted low-risk inmates from state prisons to fight fires, but due to the difficulties in adhering to quarantine guidelines within notoriously overcrowded correctional facilities, many of these incarcerated firefighting crews received early parole and release, significantly reducing the pool of available workers. 

The risk of infection with the coronavirus also exacerbated evacuation efforts for many USF students living in areas affected by the fires. Just 70 miles south of San Francisco in the city of Morgan Hill, junior sociology major Sakshi Kashyap evacuated her home to a crowded local high school before finding safer housing in a hotel in the downtown district. “Overall, it was pretty nerve wracking because we didn’t know how long we would have to evacuate,” she said. “It was really hectic because we kept losing internet connection so we never really had accurate information throughout the whole ordeal.” 

While remembering the heavy smoke that shrouded Morgan Hill the week of evacuations, Kashyap said, “I definitely felt unsafe during those days — it felt like something worse was about to happen. After returning home, we were just always alert because it felt so ominous. Realistically, I knew it was just smoke, but in my head, it felt like something worse.” 

These environmental issues were not contained in California. Up and down the West Coast of the U.S, there has been a rampant pattern of protracted drought and ensuing wildfires. An emerging field of study in wildfire management revolves around the Wildland-Urban Interface, which refers to areas of human habitation in proximity to areas of wildlands — as populations increase, and urban development encroaches into more wooded areas to meet housing demands, these high-risk zones continue to expand. The recent fires demonstrate just how relevant this branch of study is becoming.

Junior sociology major Angela Sivers also felt the effects of the wildfires in Portland, Oregon. “The fires and smoke were, and still are in some places, really intense here. From what I gathered, the Portland community was quite frightened by how close the fires got to the metro area,” she said. 

Sivers said Portlanders expressed disbelief at the local air quality index (AQI), sharing screenshots of the AQI daily forecast with a lower limit of 500 and upper of 800, while a typical AQI level is 20. 

Sivers said the air quality was so poor that it affected her ability to do school work and attend to other obligations. “The smoke got so bad that for two days I didn’t even step foot outside,” she said. “I was concerned for Portland’s population who are currently unhoused. They opened our Convention Center as a shelter, but being crammed into one space poses people at risk for COVID. So there was really no safe option for some people.” 

With the upcoming 2020 presidential election looming and this rash of fires highlighting the compounding ramifications of global warming, both Sivers and Kashyap agreed that this is the time for voters to take action. “We definitely need to pursue extensive climate change policies,” Kashyap said. “The earth is literally dying and yet, the government is consistently rolling back policies that were put in place to protect this land.” 

Sivers echoes the urgency of Kashyap, “So much needs to be done in terms of work to reverse climate change, which is causing these intense dry spells and the resulting fires. There needs to be change at every level, especially with giant corporations who are responsible for a large part of emissions. Climate change isn’t something of the future anymore. It’s happening now and all we can do is try our best to reverse its effects.”

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