California Fires Kill Forests Yearly – Are Humans to Blame?
With recurring wildfires in California, Florida, and Western Canada killing miles of forest, questions surrounding their causation inevitably emerge. Are humans to blame?
In the immortal words of Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” With yet another wildfire wreaking havoc near the suburbs of Los Angeles, California, perhaps people should start listening to Smokey.
According to Associated Press journalists Jacob Adelman and Raquel Maria Dillon, humans caused the blaze that as of September 2, , had ravaged 219 square miles (140,150 acres) of Angeles National Park in eight days. In their article, “LA Fire Human-Caused, Official Says,” Adelman and Dillon cite Deputy Incident Commander Carlton Joseph for the fault determination. Joseph notes that humans may cause wildfires in various ways, ranging from a dropped cigarette to a spark from a lawnmower. However, it is not yet known whether the initial spark was accidental or intentional.
What carelessness or maliciousness would cause someone to instigate such massive destruction – to leave hordes of wildlife dead or homeless, to lay waste to acres upon acres of natural resources, and to place many firefighters in deadly peril? If truly an act of negligence, what can humans do to prevent or limit wildfires?
Wildfires Destroy Forests Across the United States and Canada
Wildfires are no strangers to California. Before summer’s end in 2009, approximately 200,000 acres of forest had fallen victim to fire per the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. There were more than 20 wildfires from January–August. The majority and most powerful wildfires occurred in late summer. Autumn threatens to bring several more.
And 2009 is no anomaly. Per the Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, California’s 20 biggest fires (with regard to acreage destroyed) range from 1932–2009 and have cremated approximately 3 million acres. Of these fires, six have been human-caused (one from arson), two have unknown causes, and the rest were caused by power lines or lightning.
The biggest fires occur around October. Says Adelman and Dillon, “Autumn is the season for the ferocious Santa Ana winds to sweep in from the northeastern deserts, gaining speed through narrow mountain canyons, sapping moisture from vegetation and pushing flames farther out into the suburbs.” The winds spread embers to dry foliage, quickly enhancing the blaze.
California is not alone in its flammable proclivities. The U.S. Fire Administration reports more than 57 million acres lost to wildfires from 1997 to 2006. Nearly four out of five wildfires are human-caused.
On September 2, 2009, wildfires existed in California, Utah, and Oregon. According to the United States Geological Survey, nearly every state has had severe wildfires. The western third of the country accounts for the bulk of these fires, but states like Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Oklahoma have all seen their fair share. The fewest fires have occurred in New England.
Wildfires know no national boundaries, with British Columbia and the Yukon Territory each experiencing more than ten wildfires at the start of September 2009. In the past, Canadian wildfires have burned miles of forest in Northwest Alberta and in Ontario, in addition to western provinces. According to Natural Resources Canada, “about 8,500 forest fires are reported each year in Canada, burning an area of 2.5 million hectares.” Sixty percent of these fires are caused by humans. Over $400 million is spent fighting Canadian wildfires each year.
Environmental Impacts of Wildfires
Wildfires cause tremendous environmental detriment. In addition to the obvious obliteration of wildlife and natural resources, these fires impact in subtle ways that have far-reaching effects. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, “the secondary effects of wildfires, including erosion, landslides, the introduction of invasive species, and changes in water quality, are often more disastrous than the fire itself.” Lost vegetation and exposure of bare ground increase the risk of flooding and debris flow. “Sediment burned debris, and chemicals affect water quality.”
Further, wildfires worsen air quality. When inhaled, smoke and ash can cause negative and lasting health effects, including lung disease.
Wildfires do have some environmental positives. Per the Department of the Interior, “Many species depend on wildfires to improve habitat, recycle nutrients, and maintain diverse communities.” However, the damages related to these fires far outweigh any good that may come from them, particularly when human lives are affected. The chemicals used to battle wildfires (containing ammonia) are also potentially hazardous to wildlife.
Human Causes of Wildfires and Means of Prevention
Humans cause many wildfires, be it from arson or carelessness. For arsonists, little can be done to prevent their malevolent acts. Victims can only hope the perpetrators are apprehended and strictly prosecuted.
Negligent causes are sadly infinite. They include the smallest flicker of a match and the accidental spark from machinery. Many can be prevented simply by employing common sense. Properly dispose of cigarettes. Deploy fireworks over the water. Burn compost and trash using controlled and supervised fires, having remedial measures ready in case the fire becomes uncontrolled.
For naturally occurring fires, people can limit wildfire spreading in or to inhabited areas. According to Natural Resources Canada, “mitigation activities such as education, fuel management, and good building and development practices can dramatically decrease the probability of losses to public and private infrastructure.” Methods of reducing the risks of wildfires include “clearing vegetation from around the home, building with fire-resistant materials, and identifying and dealing with risks before a fire occurs.”
Education is imperative. Learning which plants fuel wildfires can reduce damage, particularly when the knowledge is employed by an entire community. Even simple activities like cleaning gutters, removing dead leaves, owning hoses, and mowing lawns can make a difference, at least in preventing smaller fires from burning beyond control. Obviously, if a wildfire is raging toward one’s home, evacuation should be his or her first priority.
Wildfires cause substantial devastation and risk to the environment and to human life. Although the costs necessary to quell these sometimes preventable wildfires are measurable, the value of lives lost is not. Humans must take precautions to limit themselves as causes of future devastation.
Perhaps Smokey should change his motto to “Only you can stop causing forest fires.”
Major Culprit in Causing Many Fires May Come as a Surprise
The majority of forest fires could be avoided by one easy solution that lies within the grasp of most people, and that is the simple application of common sense.
Every year millions of hectares of land across the planet are ravaged by fierce forest fires which raged out of control, destroying the environment, crops, homes, and, in the worst-case scenarios, lives.
With monotonous regularity during hot, dry summer months, TV news reports broadcast terrifying images of hell on earth as smoke-blackened skies act as menacing backdrops to virtually unstoppable fire monsters devouring all in their path.
Each year it tends to be the same areas which bear the brunt of the devastation; California in the USA, bush fires in Australia and in Southern Europe, Greece, Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal.
For all these locations it appears as though summer comes with an unwanted inevitability – the risk of fires. It’s a seemingly unavoidable part of the seasonal package… except that it doesn’t have to be this way as most forest fires are avoidable.
How Do Forest Fires Start?
Environmental groups acknowledge that forest fires play an essential role in the life of a forest and that when they occur naturally they are an integral aspect of any forest’s ecosystem; acting as a catalyst for ongoing regeneration. They are part of the circle of life.
The problem occurs when an unnatural factor interferes with nature’s delicately balanced ecosystem. And unfortunately, the ‘unnatural factor’ in the case of most forest fires is the man.
In an analysis of forest fires throughout Europe during 2008, the Institute for Environment and Sustainability made some sobering discoveries.
In many countries, the number of fires that started as a result of natural causes (usually lightning) amounted to less than 1%. A staggering 99% of the fires which caused so much damage and heartbreak were caused by humans themselves, either directly or otherwise.
The Deliberate Human Causes of Forest Fires
A significant percentage of human fires, approximately 40%, were deliberate; arson in other words.
The reasons why people start forest fires range from mental health issues such as pyromania to the plain incredible and downright stupid. Such was the case with two French firefighters who admitted starting a fire on the Island of Corsica in order to bump up their wage packet with a bit of overtime. Unfortunately, this example of people who have responsibility for protecting the forest being the cause of destroying it isn’t isolated. A forestry worker was responsible for fires that devastated the Canary Island of Gran Canaria in 2007 because his temporary contract was coming to an end and he thought that starting a fire would create more work and he’d keep his job.
Forest Fires Started as a Result of Accidents or Negligence
However, the most common cause of forest fires can be plain and simple negligence or, to be blunter about it, stupidity.
The IES discovered that accidents and negligence accounted for up to 58% of fires in Europe.
What constitutes an accident, or negligence, covers a wide gamut of situations which include casually discarded cigarettes; hikers, and picnickers not properly extinguishing their fires, and wayward fireworks. In one case a blaze was started by French soldiers firing tracer bullets.
The most enlightening and shocking statistic of all is the one that points to the main perpetrator when it comes to accidental forest fires. Ironically, the culprits are the people who on many occasions suffer the most loss at the hands of forest fires; farmers.
In Portugal alone, 83% of accidental fires were caused as a direct result of agricultural burnings, pasture renewal, and slash burning.
It seems incredible to believe that if farmers applied more care and common sense over the maintenance of their land that up to 50% of forest fires would immediately be eradicated.
It really could be seen as a case of ‘Physician, heal thyself’.