wildfires in california

Why Do Wildfires Happen in California?

The wildfires that are widespread and damaging enough to make the national news often take place in California. In 2020 — the state’s worst wildfire season on record — 4,092,151 acres burned, accounting for 4.10% of the large state’s total area. 

Many homes and commercial buildings, wildlife habitats and ecosystems, and even human lives were lost that year alone. According to trends and projections, the situation isn’t likely to improve any time soon. 

So what is it about California that makes it so prone to these destructive fires, and why are parts of the state burning more frequently as time goes on? Let’s take a look.

Most at-risk areas for wildfires are in California. 

History shows that the state of California is a high-risk place for wildfires. But which areas, specifically, tend to ignite? 

While devastating fires have been recorded from Los Angeles all the way up to San Francisco and beyond, a common characteristic of many fires is that they take place in the state’s wildland-urban interface (WUI). 

These areas are where some type of natural wildland, like a forest, meets an urban area where people live. This puts homes, businesses, and families closer to the areas that are most likely to burn as wildfires progressively get hotter, more frequent, and more widespread.

Key causes of California wildfires.

What kinds of factors put California at such high wildfire risk? There are several to point to.

Dry Vegetation

California is home to a wide variety of vegetation and frequent droughts, which is a dangerous combination. The drier native plants, trees, and shrubs become for lack of water, the more easily they will ignite from lightning or human accidents. 

Fire can spread far more easily in these conditions as well. Paradoxically, our fire suppression efforts in recent years haven’t helped with this. 

Stopping fires from naturally and regularly clearing excess dry vegetation means that more has been allowed to grow and accumulate, leading to more wildfire risk. That’s why prescribed burns are now considered to be a crucial part of wildfire prevention, to help manage dry vegetation levels in the state.

High Winds

California is also known for its specific wind patterns. In the spring and the fall, the Diablo winds blow from the Nevada desert into the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. The winds drop in humidity as they get to the coast, contributing to warm, dry conditions in already fire-prone areas. 

Then, in the winter months, the Santa Ana winds begin to blow, causing similar problems. They keep vegetation dry and help fan the flames and spread dangerous embers once wildfires start. 

Human Activity

Sometimes, wildfires are ignited by natural elements. The L.N.U. Lightning Complex fires in August 2020 were one such example—lightning strikes were identified as the cause. However, around 84% of blazes can be traced back to human activity. A cigarette that’s improperly discarded or a campfire that’s not adequately doused can turn into large fires all too easily. 

Downed power lines or worn power equipment have also been the source of some of California’s largest fires, including the Camp Fire in 2018. Combine these careless or neglectful acts with the dry vegetation, high winds, and heatwaves, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

The Impacts of Climate Change

It’s impossible to examine the California history of rapidly worsening forest fires without looking at climate change. By this point in time, scientists and fire authorities agree that climate change is rapidly increasing fire-prone conditions in Western US states (and, increasingly, many other areas as well). 

The changing climate leads to warmer temperatures and heatwaves, plus less precipitation and more drought. Since all a fire really needs to start and spread quickly is a method of ignition and plenty of fuel (often in the form of vegetation that has been allowed to dry out), California has become a prime location for this dangerous drama to play out each year. 

Experts maintain that taking immediate action to reduce our negative impact on the planet is the only way to prevent this problem from getting even worse. Ever since blazes like the Dixie Fire have started igniting earlier than what we traditionally consider to be ‘fire season’ (June), climate scientists warn that without efforts to stop climate change in its tracks, wildfires will become an even more devastating, year-round problem for even more areas than just northern California and southern California.

What should California residents do to stay safe from wildfires?

Unsurprisingly, prevention is key. We all need to do our part to prevent wildfires. These measures don’t just include taking great care when handling cigarettes, fireworks, or campfires, although that’s important. 

They also include taking action to fight climate change. We can all take steps to reduce our own, individual carbon footprints, such as recycling and using less power. However, the most important element of the fight is activism to encourage legal and political measures that will help curb climate damage enacted by large corporations and industries. 

Ember Defense

You can also take measures to protect your home and your family if you live in a wildfire-prone area in California. 

Contact us today to learn more from the fire-defense experts on how to harden your home against potential wildfire damage. We offer a wide range of products and services designed to keep property and structures in these areas safe from the worst effects of worsening wildfires. Reach out to find out more.