At this very moment, uncontained wildfires are causing destruction all around the world and nothing suggests that this will change in the near future.
The climate is changing. The summers are getting warmer and drier – creating ideal conditions for wildfires. One of the most affected areas in the world is the state of California, where the largest wildfires in the state’s history are raging.
Last year 9.000 wildfires ravaged more than 1,200.000 acres of land and burned over 10.000 buildings in California.
This all happened in a single year.
Chapter 1: When hell came down the mountain
Chapter 2: When the forest turned red
Chapter 3: Fires natural environment
Chapter 4: When the smoke clears
Chapter 5: What you don’t see
Chapter 6: The unlikely heros
Chapter 7: The new normal
When hell came down the mountain
Like a beast destroying everything in its path, a wildfire raged down the hill. The sky was red when Jonathan Cox, Battalion Chief with CAL FIRE picked up his phone. His boss Paul Lowenthal, fire chief in Santa Rosa, was on the other end. “It’s in the city, we need your help right now!”
Cox was one of the first firemen to arrive at the scene in Santa Rosa. Everyone first focused on waking people up and evacuating them from their homes. After that, the work of controlling the fire began. “People were running for their lives. I felt completely helpless,” Cox said.
The fire started earlier that evening and hurricane-like winds spread the fire down the hillside towards Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco. When the sun rose again, thousands of homes had burned to the ground and several people were dead.
When the forest turned red
The trees are dying in California at a fast pace. In 2016 it was registered that 62.000.000 trees died - that makes 170.000 trees every day. The recent years with drought and rising temperatures due to climate change has made the trees less resistant and more vulnerable to attacks from insects and diseases. “The amount of dead and dying trees are rising, which increases the risk for wildfires for the local communities,” said Randy Moore, Forester at U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region. “We’ve observed that the trees in California haven’t recovered from the recent drought yet. They continue to be vulnerable to bark beetle attacks and are in danger of burning in wildfires,” Moore said.
The troublemaker is a small beetle not bigger than a boiled grain of rice. At a lab in Sonora, a town close to Stanislaus National Forest, a small team of people are studying the bark beetle and its impact on the dying trees.
Fires natural environment
The fire has always been a natural part of the landscape in California. The Miwok people lived in Yosemite National Park for thousands of years side by side with the fire. Their tradition of burning down the meadows and oak woodlands created an open and fire safe landscape to inhabit.
Today they are trying to reintroduce the concept of good fire in the Park after the last century of suppressing every fire that appeared. Climate change has increased the risk of wildfires and the last few years California has experienced serious droughts and rise in the temperature. The chief of Fire and Aviation Management, Kelly Martin, is concerned about the future. “The one way we can get ahead of climate change is using fire to fight fire. It’s more urgent now than ever before,” Martin said.
Four hours down the road from Yosemite is Mt. Copernicus Peak. Driving up winding roads you will find a relic of the past - an old fire lookout. Back in the 1920s, there were hundreds of lookouts all throughout the state of California, but as satellites started to improve they put the lookouts out of work and eventually it was decided to shut them down.
Just like they are reintroducing old traditions in Yosemite they are refurbishing some of the old fire lookouts and volunteers are staffing them in the fire season.
When the smoke clears
I still think it is pretty even though everything is burned down,” Jason Murra, resident of Groveland said. He is living in the small town Groveland with just 600 residents on the border to Yosemite.
In the summer of 2013 the Rim Fire started in Stanislaus National Forest. It spread to Yosemite National Park and evolved to be the third biggest fire in the history of California. It took firefighters nine weeks to fight the Rim Fire.
Middletown is another small town that got hit by a wildfire just a few years ago. Unlike the people in Groveland surrounded by forest, not a lot of the residents in Middletown thought they were in danger of a destructive wildfire.
What you don’t see
The wildfires in California have far-reaching consequences. Not only tangible consequences such as houses and human lives that are lost in the flames, but also the air quality is affected. By comparing certain hospitalizations in areas affected by smoke, with hospitalizations in similar areas without the influence of smoke, Jia Coco Liu, environmental and health researcher at John Hopkins University, concludes that during wildfires, a significant increase occurs in people experiencing breathing problems and chronic lung diseases.
A study from the European Commission determined that smoke from wildfires annually results in about 340,000 premature deaths worldwide.
The unlikely heroes
In the woods between San José and Santa Cruz lies a small camp hidden from the public. It is actually a prison, but not a traditional prison with gates, high walls and guards with rifles in towers. There is only a small wire fence, not much higher than an ordinary man. “It only works because our inmates want to be here,” Dave Mendonca, daily leader of the camp explains. The inmates in here help to extinguish fires in the area. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has had thousands of prisoners in fire camps across the state since 1946. Their primary mission is to assist the fire services in emergencies such as fires, floods and other natural or man-made disasters. They deliver approximately 3 million hours of firefighting and approximately 7 million hours of community service each year.
The new normal
Back in Santa Rosa the smoke has subsided. The rain has swept over Coffey Park, leaving the area grey and muddy, while a team of machines is crushing the burned-out cars, stacking them and driving off with them. Life goes on, and the affected are trying to adapt to the new circumstances in their temporary housing. But there is a long way to go, and experience from earlier fires indicate that the reconstruction work is going to last several years. “We usually change our practice from what we learn from disasters. I don’t think that more than 40 people can die and almost 8.000 homes burn down to the ground without anything changing,” Jonathan Cox, Battalion Chief with CAL FIRE said.
On July 27th this year the Mendocino Complex ignited North of San Francisco surpassing last years fire, the Thomas fire, to become the single-largest modern California wildfire.
459.123 acres of land was burned when the fire was 100% contained more than 7 weeks later on September 18th, 2018.
Rune Aarestrup Pedersen
Anders Rye Skjoldjensen