Igniting Adaptation Action: Wildfires in California

In the series of articles by our Youth Newsroom reporters, Tracy Fung reports on the effect of wildfires in California.

Californische kust
©Daniel J. Schwarz

California. Surf, sun, and (movie) stars. A vacationer’s paradise. Sitting on the beach, toes in the sand, soaking up the sun with the salty sea breeze lingering in the air. The sounds of the waves in the background as I close my eyes and exhale with a sigh of content. This is what heaven must be like. This is absolute bliss. This is home.

Suddenly the air becomes thick and the sky turns grey. Pleasure quickly turns into panic as I look up behind me. Bright orange and yellow flames emerge in the distance as clouds of black and grey smoke quickly fill the sky.

I, along with other Californians feel the increasing effects of climate change each year. As the state with the largest population in the country, California is home to over 39 million residents (United States Census Bureau). Though California is prone to a number of challenges ranging from drought to sea level rise, wildfires have become the most devastating threat.

Californian wildfires have become more frequent and at the same time more destructive in recent years. As global temperatures continue to rise, we are increasingly forced to look at the imminent situation from an adaptive approach. Drought, one of the causes of the wildfires, leaves behind dead trees and shrubbery, the perfect highly flammable material. Furthermore, extended hotter and drier summers result in a higher fire risk.

Wildfire in California destroying large parts of woodland and residential areas
©Noah Berger/AP
Bear fire in Oroville, California, on 9 September 2020.

Districts throughout the state including mine, have been implementing adaptive measures to combat the wildfires for years. Some cities have focused on improving infrastructure to withstand fire, creating “defensible” areas around homes, carrying out prescribed fires, and implementing programs dedicated to planning and outreach.

Among these adaptive measures, the most promising are recent technological developments that can gather real-time data on wind speeds, vegetation moisture, temperature, and humidity. In this way, electric companies are able to warn residents when there is a high-risk of wildfire and to shut off power lines.

Even with these measures in place, we are still experiencing a record number of fires that are threatening our livelihoods, our homes. This leads to the question, is there enough being done to prevent these wildfires? The answer is no.

Local and state governments need to step up their efforts in preventive and adaptive measures. Even more needs to be done in order to keep up with the increased pace at which climate change is affecting our livelihoods. We need to take matters into our own hands and do more to educate the public by establishing local groups focused on risk reduction and mitigation.

California is just one example of a place that is under the threat of climate change. If we don’t accelerate our efforts quickly, California will no longer be my home, but just a distant memory. We need to tackle climate change before it tackles us.

Tracy Fung