The Wildfires of 2020
By Clarisa Yee
Many people will remember 2020 as the year where many had to self-quarantine at home. However, outside the confines of our homes, the environment has continued to change since this year was marked by an increase in intensity of one natural disaster in particular - wildfires.
What are wildfires?
Wildfires are classified as natural disasters that can quickly burn millions of acres of land along with everything that is in its path. Its spread can be assisted by winds, leaving behind heavy damage to the environment and people. There are natural and man-made wildfires but the start of one has three essential factors: fuel, oxygen, and a heat source.
Fuel consists of any flammable material that allows the fire to burn such as trees, grasses, brush, and homes. Oxygen found in air will react with the fuel. A heat source is the match that is needed to ignite this natural disaster. A few common heat sources include lightning, campfires, cigarettes, and the sun as they generate heat to start a wildfire.
Studies have also found a connection between climate change and the increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Global warming has led to hotter weather, which causes sources of fuel like forests and plants to become drier and easier to burn. Additionally, the average wildfire season is now three and a half months longer than what it was decades ago. This year, the Australian Bushfires and California Wildfires have generated a lot of attention because of the damage they left behind - let’s take a deeper dive into each of them!
California is a state prone to wildfires because of its dry climate. During the summer most of the California vegetation becomes dry because of the warm temperatures and lack of rain. This acts as fuel for the wildfires that can spark with any heat source. This year marks the worst wildfire season in the state’s history. Since the start of 2020, it has been reported that there have been more than 8,700 California wildfires with around 4.1 million acres of land lost to these flames - that’s about the same size as Connecticut!
Most of these flames are man-made such as the El Dorado fire, which was started at a gender-reveal party by a pyrotechnic device. However, climate change has brought on conditions like drought, dry land, high temperatures, and dry lightning storms that have contributed to the rise of wildfires across California. Reports have also indicated more than 9,200 structures have been destroyed, as these record-breaking wildfires have forced Californians to evacuate. The smoke that arises from these flames covered almost the entire west coast, affecting 11 states and 2 Canadian provinces. The smoke also trapped sunlight, turning the sky orange. Wildfires are still burning today, and California’s firefighters are standing at the frontlines fighting them.
In Australia, wildfires are commonly referred to as bushfires, because they occur in bushlands. Bushlands cover 17% of Australia’s land and are lands that are covered with natural vegetation such as trees and shrubs. The 2020 Australian Bushfire crisis began in September 2019 and, like the California wildfires, many started because of dry, hot, and windy conditions. Climate change is seen to be a main contributor, as Australia is experiencing record-breaking hot days and a dry spring this year. As one of the worst wildlife disasters, Australia’s bushfires have burned at least 27 million acres of land - that is seven times more than the area burned in California this year! - with around 2,500 homes destroyed. However, the greatest damage caused by this crisis is the loss of biodiversity and wildlife, because the bushfires have killed an estimated 1.25 billion animals. Although the bushfires have stopped burning, scientists believe it will still be difficult for the animals who have survived the flames, since they have lost their natural habitat which had provided them with food and shelter.
The Australian bushfire crisis and California wildfires are only two of the many that have occurred in 2020 so far. However, with global warming and drier climate conditions, wildfire cases will only continue to rise and cause even more damage than it already has in the near future.
Editor: Lucy Zhu