Wildfire season, which usually peaks from July to October, is not over. However, more than 4 million acres burned across California as of October 2020, making this year the most destructive in the state’s history.
As the temperatures continue to rise and the effects of climate change advance dramatically, scientists, activists and scholars suggest ways to slow down global warming, which, they assess, is how California can prevent havoc caused by the wildfires. But there doesn’t seem to be a consensus in Washington D.C. on how to deal with the crisis. At the first presidential debate, President Trump cited “poor forest management” as responsible for the increasing wildfires. On the other hand, Joe Biden brought up climate change as the main force behind this destruction — two very different takes on the issue, largely reflecting the current divide between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
Experts point to a number of causes behind the wildfires and offer a wide range of short-term and long-term solutions to prevent further damage in the area. For example, Dr. Lydia Barnett, historian and author with principal research interest in environmental history, said research by the interdisciplinary field of disaster studies showed that there’s no such thing as a purely natural disaster. “Patterns of development, fire management practices, anthropogenic climate change: all of these play a role in causing the wildfires and all of them are man-made,” said Barnett, who is teaching the undergraduate class ‘The Politics of Disaster’ at Northwestern University.
As of Oct. 8, wildfires in 2020 left 9,247 structures damaged or destroyed and killed at least 31 people, according to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Wildfires have dislocated thousands of residents living near fire hazard severity zones, a phenomenon largely affecting the low-income communities as they are pushed to these areas due to soaring house prices in major cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The wildfires seem to be exacerbating pre-existing social vulnerabilities of certain communities in a wide range of ways. While the pandemic remains poorly handled within California prisons, the state is currently relying on prison labor as a supplementary firefighting force; this is just one extremely dystopian example of these social vulnerabilities, according to Barnett.
“This year, so many incarcerated people have fallen prey to COVID that they don’t have enough prisoners to fight the fires," Barnett said. "So the ongoing disaster of mass incarceration intersects with the ongoing disaster of climate change to create heightened vulnerability to wildfires. There’s nothing natural about that.”
The negative impacts of wildfires on California residents dramatically increased in 2020. According to experts, the state's citizens might face permanent health problems, psychological and economic difficulties.
“Wildfires affected me physically and emotionally,” said Jacquelyn Marie Tepper, a recent graduate of Northwestern University. “We weren't very close to the fires in LA, but we still had ashes rain down in our backyard. It was crazy how much it affected our air quality, for me having asthma and allergies.”
“We went maybe a week without blue skies in LA, and it really threw us for a loop," Tepper said. "But this is also a reminder of where the climate crisis is at, how little expertise is valued, how we’re not listening to people that have the answers and the selfishness and ignorance that’s always around."
Tepper, who double majored in dance and political science at Northwestern University, attributes the disastrous effects of the wildfires to inadequate national action and poor federal policy. “I’ve read a lot about knowledge Indigenous people have/have had previously about how to better care for and control the land, and it’s moments like this that I wish that knowledge was taken and warnings heeded,” Tepper said.
With the election approaching, and the 2020 fire season coming to a close, the question is whether Washington D.C. will come up with a comprehensive climate plan to prevent further damage caused by deadly wildfires. In August, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency and a few days later, the White House approved California’s request for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration. Efficient cooperation between the state and federal governments will remain vital in creating an effective wildfire response in the following months.
“Whatever the results of the election this November, it is imperative that we continue to pressure government officials at all levels, and especially at the federal level, to pour resources and expertise into this issue,” Barnett said.
“The good news about disasters being man-made is that they are at least partly under our control. In the case of the West Coast wildfires, we can address mass incarceration and poverty and climate change and thereby reduce vulnerability to fires, while at the same time lessening inequality and increasing environmental justice,” Barnett said. “We can and we have to.”
Photo licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. Courtesy of Daria Devyatkina.