Wildfire: Causes, Costs and Solution

5164 words (21 pages) Essay in Geography

23/09/19 Geography Reference this

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Fig. 1. “Flames from the Holy Fire scorch a hillside in Lake Elsinore, California” from ROBYN BECK / AFP / GETTY; “Why the Wildfires of 2018 Have Been So Ferocious”; the Atlantic, TheAtlantic.com, 9 Aug. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/08/why-this-years-wildfires-have-been-so-ferocious/567215/. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.


What is wildfire?

Wildfire is an uncontrolled fire which caused by nature or human activities in forests or rural areas. There are three elements which cause wildfires: oxygen, fuel, and high temperatures (see fig. 2). Wildfires usually occur in hot and dry climates.

Fig. 2. Three elements which cause wildfires from Pin Ju Ho.; “Learn More About Wildfires”; National Geographic; National Geographic Partners, LLC., www.nationalgeographic.com

/environment/natural-disasters/wildfires/? user.testname=none. Accessed 12 Sep. 2018.

Why do wildfires happen?

Due to global warming, climate change has become more dramatic. Climate change causes high temperatures, droughts, and strong winds in the summertime. The dry season has become longer, so wildfire have become more and more frequent, and larger recently.

Low precipitation is because of high heat and strong Santa Ana Winds. In the South West of the United States, Santa Ana winds blow from the continent to the Pacific Coast. The continent has high pressure, and the ocean has low pressure, so the counterclockwise wind from the Great Basin, Nevada, blows from east to west (see fig. 3). When it passes through mountains, and leeward, is dry and hot. The wind can reach up to 70 mph, and the wind causes fires, according to BBC news, “Why can’t California control the wildfires?”

Fig. 3. Santa Ana Winds blow from the continent to the ocean from Pin Ju Ho.; “What are the Santa Ana winds?” Matt Wotus and Judson Jones; CNN; Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 6 Dec. 2017, www.cnn.com /2017/12/06/weather/santa-ana-winds-explained/index.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

Climate change results in high temperatures, and heat waves reduce rainfall due to faster evaporation. Lands become hotter quickly, so water evaporates faster from the land. The air takes moisture from the land, and the soil is too dry, so it becomes a drought. The resulting dry vegetation easily becomes fuel and result in wildfires. Santa Ana winds causes high temperatures also, so it becomes a vicious cycle. Climate change is one of the reasons that wildfires increase, but wildfires are caused by nature and human activity. Human activity is the main reason. Over 80% of wildfires occur because of careless or purposeful human actions, according to “Study Shows 84% of Wildfires Caused by Humans” (Jason Daley). For example, having a barbeque in forests, ignited cigarettes, fireworks, arson, debris burning, fire camping, etc. These activities spark a little fire and then trees, or grass, catch fire and turn into the big fires. The best example for human-caused wildfire recently is the Holy fire which was caused by an arsonist, Forest Clark, according to “Humans Cause Over 95 Percent of California Wildfires.” (Sarah Gibbens). Another example is the Carr Fire, which it was determined at the same time was caused by “a car spark,” the article from “What ignited many of California’s Worst Wildfires a Mystery” (Julie Warson).

Sometimes, both accidents and human actions happen at the same time, such as animal touching utility poles and sparking them or some falling branches touching electronic objects and sparking. Only a few wildfires are caused by nature alone (see fig. 4). “Lighting is the main factor for the fires, but it is under 5%,” according to according to “Humans Cause Over 95 Percent of California Wildfires.” (Sarah Gibbens.)

Fig. 4. The relationship between global warming and wildfires from Pin Ju Ho; 20 Oct. 2018.

The main factor for increasing wildfires is climate change. Climate Change is due to human activity, too. It is a cycle. For instance, when humans drive cars, the cars emit a lot of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide releases in to the atmosphere and increases the greenhouse effect, which makes the earth hotter. The atmosphere becomes thicker and the greenhouse effect becomes stronger. Then global warming becomes intensive, and climate change results in hotter, drier summers and extend wildfire seasons. Until people give up using these fuels or find alternative energy, the wildfires will continue. Carbon dioxide amount has increased more over the average of thousand years, and it will continue in the future. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased by 41% carbon dioxide according to “Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide” (LuAnn Dahlman). When carbon dioxide is too much, global warming will occur. Chart1.

Chart 1. Carbon Dioxide amount in the atmosphere. “Climate Change: How Do We Know?” from Holly Shaftel; NASA Global Climate Change Vital Signs of the Planet; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology, 15 Oct. 2018, climate.nasa.gov/evidence/. Accessed 9 Oct. 2018.

In addition, for those main reasons, killing a lot of trees increases pests. Then, the pests continue reproducing, and they eat more trees. Most insects like a warm environment, and global warming results in large amounts of pests. The forests will be damaged by those pests, and die, according to “How climate changed in increasing forest fires around the world ”( Anne-Sophie Brändlin) If the forests decrease, a small number of trees cannot absorb much carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide amount will increase faster.

Where and when does wildfire occur?

Wildfire is a global issue. It occurs everywhere in the world, such as: the United States, Canada, Central Chile, Europe, Russia, Africa, the Rainforest in the tropics, and Australia. From the map, most wildfires occur in forests, wildland, and grassland. Without enough precipitation, those wildlands have droughts, and when the temperature is high, the grass and trees burn. According to “Global Wildfires: NASA Image from Space Shows ‘World is on Fire,” Jenni Fink states that Africa has experienced agricultural fires because farmers use fire to clear unwanted plants, and give nutrients back to their lands. In British Columbia, 560 fires occurred and over 1,853,290 acres have burned. According to “Fire, Fire Everywhere: The 2018 Global Wildfire Season is Already Disastrous,” because the fire season now “extends from June to October,” global heatwaves are still influence many countries, such as the area between Siberia and the Mediterranean, East Asia, and North America (John Vidal). In Europe, the number of wildfires reach over 40 % on average, according to “Fire, Fire Everywhere: The 2018 Global Wildfire Season is Already Disastrous” (John Vidal). The United States and Australia have the worst damage and largest wildfires in the world. Australia is a hot and dry, and wildfires there are due to human activity and planetary change. Thus, wildfires should be seen as a global issue. They are everywhere. The Earth is burning (see map 1).

Map. 1. Wildfires are burning everywhere. “Fire Maps in the world.”; NASA Firm; NASA, 6 Oct. 2018, firms.modaps.eosdis.nasa.gov/map. Accessed 6 Oct. 2018.

Recently, America has suffered many wildfires. The United States has one the highest amount of wildfires in the world, especially, in the east, west and south. In California and Texas the most wildfires occur. Missouri, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have the most wildfires in the eastern part of America. Only northern United States has fewer wildfires (see map 2). The most intensive and largest fires are in California due to the arid and hot climate. According to “How climate change is increasing forest fires around the world,” scientists have found that large wildfires occurred five times more often since the 1970s (Anne-Sophie Brändlin). California has one of the largest amounts wildfires in the United States. California had 9,560 fires in 2017. In 2018, many wildfires have already burned in California. So far, “50,004 fires” have occurred, and “over 8,155,979 acres” have burned, according to National Interagency Fire Center. Some of the wildfires are still burning, such as the Holy Fire. It started in September and right now it is       still burning.

Wildfires amount by States in 2017

Map. 2. The United States Wildfires map, 2017 from Pin Ju Ho; “Wildfires By State, 2017”; Insurance Information Institute; Insurance Information Institute, Inc., www.iii.org/table-archive/23284. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

In 2018, the Holy fire and the Carr fire influenced southern California very much (see map 3). In the summertime, from July to late September or October, high temperatures and dry climate in California result in wildfires. Santa Ana Winds blow in September and October, so the wildfire season is not only the summer season but also in autumn.

Currently California is almost at the end of wildfire season; however, California still has 16 fires burning in October, according to Cal Fire. Three fires are close to Orange County where the Santa Ana Wind intensifies the wildfires. Map 4.

Map. 4. California Current Wildfires (10/15/2018) from Pin Ju Ho; “2018 Statewide Incidents Map”; CA.GOV; Cal Fire, Oct. 2018, www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1HacmM5E2ueL-. Access 15 Oct. 2018.

Map. 3. California Wildfires in 2018 (from January to October 7) The gray color fires= contained fire, and the red color fires= active fires ; “2018 Statewide Incidents Map”; CA.GOV; Cal Fire, Oct. 2018, www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1HacmM5E2ueL-FT2c6QMVzoAmE5M19GAf&ll=37.526496569132675%2C-119.27200899999997&z=6 GAf&ll=37.526496569132675%2C-119.2720089999999 7&z=5. Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

In history, July is the hottest month of the year. Usually, wildfires occur in July more than other months (if it is caused by the climate but not arson).  Low precipitation is easily blamed for wildfires, and it is hard to put a fire out. Because California has a Mediterranean climate, it has a hot and dry summer. Most of the years had hot summer. 2011, 2012, and 2015 did not. Chart 2.

Precipitation (mm)

Chart 2. California Average Temperature and Precipitation in July (2009-2018) from Pin Ju Ho; “Precipitation Observations and Percents of Average for CA Statewide (Period: 1-month periods ending in July)” and “Mean Temperature Observations and Departures for CA Statewide (Period: 1-month periods ending in July)” from California Climate Tracker; Climate Signals;Climatenexus, 2018, www.climatesignals.org/data/california-temperature-and-precipitation. Accessed 9 Oct. 2018.

In California, 2 of the top 10 largest wildfires occurred in 2018, which were the Mendocino Complex and Carr Fire, according to Cal Fire ( see chart 3). The Mendocino fire is the largest wildfire in historical data. The Mendocine fire (North California), the Carr fire (Shasta), and the Ferguson fire (Sierra, Stanislaus, and Yosemite National Park) are currently burning. The Mendocine Complex Fire (the Ranch fire + the River Fire) burned “459,123 acres” in total, which is bigger than New York City, according to Cal Fire. This situation will become worse in the future.

Chart. 3. Top 10 Largest Wildfires in California from Pin Ju Ho; “Top 20 Largest California Wildfires” from Cal Fire; CA.GOV, Cal Fire, 5 Sep. 2018, www.fire.ca.gov/communications/downloads/fact_sheets/Top20_Acres.pdf. Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

From 2008 to 2018, there were over 60,000 fires, except in 2013 and in 2018 (not the whole year record, it may become higher at the end of the year), according to National Interagency Fire Center (see chart 4). And wildfire burning acres in 2015 and 2017 were over 10 million acres, according to National Interagency Fire Center (see chart 5). Burned acres will expand if climate change does not stop. According to “Wildfire Damage and Impact on the Economy and You,” Kimberly Amadeo claims that “the scientists predict that the total area burned would increase between 25 and 53 percent by 2100.” Amadeo also believes that more burned acres will reach 1.9 million, too. In Western America, the fire will increase the burned area to 50,000 acres because at that time California will drier than now (Amadeo). Larger and more wildfires will occur in the future if climate change becomes intensive.

Chart 4. Wildfires from 2008 to 2018 from Pin Ju Ho (2018 fires it is from 1/1/2018-10/19/2018).; “Total Wildland Fires and Acres (1926-2017)“; National Interagency Fire Center, www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_stats_totalFires.html Accessed 16 Sep. 2018.; “National Preparedness Level 1”;National Interagency Fire Center, Oct. 2018, www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.

 Accessed 16 Sep. 2018.

Chart 5. Wildfire Burning Acres from 2008 to 2018 from Pin Ju Ho.; “Total Wildland Fires and Acres (1926-2017)“; National Interagency Fire Center, www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_stats_totalFires.html. Accessed 16 Sep. 2018.; “National Preparedness Level 1”; National Interagency Fire Center, Oct. 2018, www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.

How much do people lose because of wildfires?

According to “wildfire: An expanding threat?,” fires resulted in losses of “$6.4 billion between 1996 to 2015 in the United States,” and in 2015, “$1.9 billion” (Arindam Samanta). Not only in America, but other countries also have the same issue. In Canada, “the Forc McMurray wildfires”, cost people “$2.96 billion” (Samanta). Some wildfires are big and costly. For example, the Valley Fire in 2015 loss data included “99 percent of the properties with fuel present, 70 percent of the burned properties, and 31 percent of the affected building and structures” (Samanta). Samanta states that “the Valley fire destroyed 1,955 houses” and cost “$900 million in insured losses.” “It was the fifth most damaging wildfire in California” (Samanta). According to “Wildfires: Causes, Costs & Containment,” the United State has lost “$ 5.1 billion and 4.5 million houses” in ten years (Alina Bradford). According to “Insured losses from Carr and Mendocino Complex fires top $845 million,” Laura Newberry believes in 2018, damage until the beginning of September was “$845 million,” and it will continue rise. Chart 6.

Chart 6. Dollars Damage by Wildfires (2008-2016) and include with Cal Fire Jurisdiction from Pin Ju Ho. “CAL FIRE Jurisdiction Fires, Acres, Dollar Damage, and Structures Destroyed”; CA.GOV; Cal Fire, 1 Aug. 2018, cdfdata.fire.ca.gov/pub/cdf/images/incidentstatsevents_270.pdf. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

Who controls the wildfires?

 In the United State, there are several organizations who control the wildfires together. Because America is a huge community, many organizations are responsible for their states.

The US Forest Service does the most federal fires. The U.S. National Interagency Fire Center is also a national important fire controlling system.

In California, there are eleven organization: Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Cal Fire, California Fire Safe Council, Cal OES, California Fire Chiefs, Los Angeles County Fire Department, National Park Service, Relational Council of Rural Counties, USDA Forest Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service help control wildfires (see fig. 5), according to “Member Agencies Contacts.”

Fig. 5. The organizations help control California wildfires.; “Member Agencies Contact”; preventwildfireca.orgwww.preventwildfireca.org/Organization-History/. Access 14 Oct. 2018.

How much does control wildfires cost? And how to control burning?

On August 31, 2018, California passed the law for wildfire prevention according to “California will spend $1 billion on wildfire prevention, give some relief to the utility company” (John Myers). “In five years, the state will spend 1$ billion to set up wildfire prevention programs” (Myers). “Cal Fire allocated money into two categories; one is $165 million for fire prevention per year, and $35 million for year-round burns research” (Myers).

Earlier, “the federal government passed a ‘fire funding fix,’” according to “Spiraling wildfire fighting costs are largely beyond the Forest Service’s control” (Cassandra Moseley). This program changed the government’s way of controlling fires. They no longer controlled all wildfires. They let small fires burn first, and then controlled them. Because the small fires help clear the environment, such as old grass, firefighters did not use helicopters and air tankers anytime. Those tools are helpful, but they cost too much money. “Air crafts cost at least 7.1 million per plane,” according to “Identifying a Cost-Effective Aviation Fleet for the U.S. Forest Service” (Lauren Skrabala). “The cost of fighting fires has increased $ 1.65 billion annually,”  and “social costs show that the average is $2.1 million to $4.5 million” (Skrabala). Those are the most costly items but stopping wildfires save lives (see chart 7).

Chart 7. 2008-2019 expenditures from Pin Ju Ho. 2018-2019 expenditure is estimated cost. “California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Emergency Fund Fire Suppression Expenditures” from Cal Fire; CA.GOV; Cal Fire, Sep. 2018, www.fire.ca.gov/fire_protection/downloads/SuppressionCostsOnepage.pdf. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

Who bears the cost?

Most current wildfires are man-made, so there must be someone to pay for the damage dollars. If the wildfire is caused by arson, the arsonist needs to pay for the damage. If the wildfire is caused by power lines, a utility needs to pay the money. However, climate change increases the amount of wildfires. If a utility company is responsible for all electronic-system-sparking-wildfires, its company will bankrupt. In the article, “PG&E customers will pay some wildfire costs under bill signed by Brown,” Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) has paid all wildfires which were caused by power lines in the past, but right now they do not have any responsibility for all wildfires (Melody Gutierrez). Gutierrez states that a new rule would be if “the wildfire cost is beyond $1 billion, customers would pay an extra $5 per year.” Everyone is responsible for wildfires.

What does wildfire effect?

Wildfires destroy buildings, infrastructure, trees, wildland, animal habitats, but it does not totally impact the Earth negatively. For instance, wildfires recreate new systems for lands. It clears up old plants, trees, and grass, so the new ones will grow and form a new forest or grassland system. Sometimes farmers burn land in order to give back the land nutrients, so they can grow new crops the next year. “This is called swidden, and so-called slash-and-burn,” according to “Climate changes set the world on fire” (Charli Shield and Ruby Russell).

On the human side, wildfires destroy their houses and impact negatively on humans’ health. According to “US Wildfire Smoke Deaths Could Double by 2100,” wildfire smoke cause of the death in people due to “chronic inhalation has increased from 15,000 people per year now and up to 40,000 people per year by the end of 21st century” (Bonne Ford, Emily Fischer and Jeff Pierce). It means it has increased 2.6 percent. Wildfire smoke results in irritated eyes, decreased lungs function, uncomfortable inhalation, and coughing. Heart and lungs diseases have increased, especially in older men and children (see photo 1). The fire injures individuals and their houses.

Photo 1. Ho, Pin Ju. “The Holy Fire resulted in smoky sky.” 9 Aug. 2018. Irvine.

According to “When and where do wildfires occur?” because human population has increased dramatically, they have to live in suburban and rural zones. “The term, ‘wildland-urban interface’ means a place where developing areas and undeveloped wildlands meet” (Steve Nix). Those people who live in these zones are in danger as they are too close to the forests or mountains. The government tries to talk to the home owners not to build their houses in these zones.

In nature, animals lose their habitats, soil formation is changed, plants store more carbon dioxide, food, and water supplies stop, and air pollution increases. As wildfire smoke is fatal for humans, wild animals have the same problems. The smoke reduces the population of wild animals, and some of them may become endangered, especially if they only live in forests or grasslands. The food supply has been reduced, so humans have food resources problems. More carbon dioxide results in greenhouse effect and global warming, and this causes more and more wildfires. It is a vicious cycle again (see fig. 6).

Fig. 6. The relationship between human activities and wildfires causes. Human activities cause a lot of droughts, and people will use technology to fix these droughts, and cause more droughts. “A vicious cycle of wildfires” from Pin Ju Ho. 16 Oct. 2018.

What are the solutions for wildfires?

As residents in California, they should have basic wildfire knowledge, such as how to prevent them and how to deal with them. Education is the first step. When individuals go to forests, they should not use fire, or they should be very careful. They must not ignite nearby fuels and try to be alerted when they find sparks. Because most of wildfires are caused by human activities, they should be aware of using fire all the time. California houses are wooden, so they burn easily. Changing the materials of the houses is a great idea, but who would pay for it? Those fire proof materials are expensive. If the government does not support the citizens, they may not afford the materials. The government needs to give the citizens subsides to change to safer materials for their houses.

Making laws to forbid fire in forests is a passive but effective way. If individuals use fire illegally, they should have a penalty or pay money.

Some firefighters use a strategy, a flapper. It is “a rubber flap with a metal pole (see fig.7),” and the firefighters use it to stop the small fires from spreading, according to “wildfire: Causes, Costs& Containment” (Alina Bradford). Fire prevention organizations changed their way to fight fires. They tried to manage fires rather than fight fires. They allow small fires to burn. Only when large wildfires happen, firefighters utilize “air tanks, fire retardant, and helicopters,” according to the US Forest Service. However, preventing the problem is better than solving it.

Fig. 7. Fire flapper from Pin Ju Ho. “Council Fire Swatter Flap”; FORESTRY SUPPLIERS, Forestry Suppliers, Inc., www.forestry-suppliers.com/product_pages/products.php?mi=15691&itemnum=85093. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.

The government has some remote sensing equipment, which costs less money and it can manage fires. For example, “Area of Interest (AOI) is one of the satellite remote sensors,” and it helps people know where and how big wildfires are, and it benefits covering large areas, low cost, and an “automatic computer analysis,” according to “Forest Fire Monitoring with Remote Sensing” (Akash Mittal). As fire detection and monitoring, these remote sensing tools for prevention are worth more than air crafts which are controlling fires after they happen.

Wildfires in the future

Right now, it is October, and through December, the amount of wildfires will reduce. However, in the future, the wildfires will only become larger, wilder, and more frequent due to climate change. From the 1980s to 2018, wildfires have become more frequent, and burning acres are larger than before.

In conclusion, I chose wildfire as my report was because it influenced my life very much. While I have been in Irvine for almost three years, I have already faced many nearby wildfires. One of the trails called Peter Canyon was burned last winter, so I could not go hiking for at least three months. Recently, in August this year, I was going back to Irvine from Mission Viejo, when I saw the sky turning to orange and gray. The air quality was very bad. I always coughed when I was outside. Because California is surrounded by mountains, when wildfires happen, the smoke is everywhere. It blocks my vision while I am driving. It is dangerous. Scientists predict that in the future we will have more wildfires in the world, and they will be larger. It is a disaster for me. I do not want to evacuate, so hopefully the government can think of some good plans to solve this problem. Also, as a resident, information of wildfire is important, it is part of my life.

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