Wildfires on the West Coast

July 6, 2023
3-5 minutes


One weather phenomenon that has been examined heavily in recent years is wildfires. Events like the Canada wildfires of 2023, the Australian Bushfires of 2019, and the California wildfires of 2020 have brought these events to the global stage — sparking discussion about the worldwide effects of wildfires, and the lasting consequences they may have. In recent years, the West Coast of the United States, most notably California, has become a hotspot of wildfires. This has sparked discussion about what causes these fires, how best we should combat them, and importantly, how climate change may be making wildfires harder to fight.

What are Wildfires?

Wildfires can be categorized as any uncontrolled or unplanned fire that burns in rural, undeveloped, or natural locations – such as forests, grasslands, or prairies. While they typically start in uninhabited areas, they often spread to more populated regions putting communities at risk of property damage, smoke inhalation, and more. While wildfires are a natural phenomenon — historically being ignited by lightning strikes — in recent centuries, human activity has become a large instigator of wildfires. Between fifty and eighty-five percent of all wildfires can be linked to humans. At times the damage is direct — with human-related origins including cigarettes, campfires, or car sparks. However, at other times human action is hard to detect – with power lines or railroad sparks being discrete wildfire instigators.

Where in the United States do Wildfires Occur?

Wildfires can occur anywhere on the planet and have been recorded in nearly every country in the world — from Australia, to Italy, to Canada. However, wildfires are most likely to take place in areas with hot, dry, and windy conditions. These weather patterns tend to help small fires become larger, hotter, and faster making way for large-scale wildfires. One region that has been a hotspot for wildfires is the western part of the United States. In the western states —  particularly California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming — wildfires are a common occurrence on account of the region's topography and vegetation. Local plants like pine trees, dry shrubs, and grasses serve as excellent kindling for fires – as compared to the moist trees and forests found in other parts of the country. Similarly, the weather patterns of the region result in long dry-seasons. Much of the West experiences shorter rainy winter months followed by long, dry, and hot summers. Additionally, towards the end of the summer, seasonal Santa Ana winds blow gusts of dry air across the west drying out plants, spreading small sparks, and fanning flames. In 2021 alone, around 6.2 million acres of wilderness were burned across the western United States, in comparison to the 1 million burned in the East.

Why are Wildfires Getting Worse?

Wildfires are undoubtedly a natural part of the western United States’ environment, as they have been common occurrences for thousands of years. In fact, thousands of years of evolution have allowed much of the local vegetation to adapt to embrace frequent wildfires. Many plants in the American West have developed thick bark, short flammable needles, or resin-covered cones (that require fire to open and spread their seed). However, in recent years many species have become unable to combat the scale and intensity of wildfires, leading to their destruction at an abnormal scale. Some of this can be attributed to fire management strategies. The United States government implemented fire suppression strategies in the early 20th century that restricted any naturally occurring fires from burning. However, this allowed dry deceased plant matter to build up creating a tinderbox effect when fires became uncontrollable. This led to hotter, bigger, and faster fires that could quickly burn through and destroy large swaths of land. Additionally, climate change has begun to further heat up global temperatures. The heat has caused the vegetation of the American West to further dry out — creating a greater tinderbox effect across the region. In summary, wildfires of recent decades are becoming increasingly more intense. In California alone, more than 4 million acres of land were burned during the 2020 wildfire season, and while governments’ fire records date back to 1932, eight of the state's ten largest wildfires have occurred in the last five years.

How are Wildfires Affecting Humans?

Wildfires impose untold effects on human populations. With every fire, hundreds of thousands of individuals are evacuated from their homes, toxic smoke poisons the air for millions more, and dozens of people lose their lives. 2020 saw some of the worst fires in recorded United States history. The fires that took place in California alone killed 33 people and saw economic losses of more than $19 billion and firefighting costs approaching $2.1 billion. Additionally between 2015 and 2020 over 50,000 structures — mostly homes — were destroyed in California. Furthermore, the poor air quality caused by wildfires in 2020 can be linked to between 1,200 and 3,000 deaths among Californian senior populations. Ultimately, the 2020s have already seen some of the deadliest fires in the history of the American West, and the world.

Case Study: The Dixie Wildfire

The Dixie Wildfire was first spotted on July 13th of 2021 in Butte County, California. Within 25 minutes, local fire officials arrived at the location of the fire, but the flames had already become uncontainable, despite immense efforts to put the fire out. Within less than 24 hours, the fire had already spread to consume 1,200 acres of land. Hot, dry, and breezy summer air fueled the flames as they traveled around the drought-ridden region — turning extinguishment into an impossible task. The fire finally came to a close on October 25th of 2021 after burning for 104 days. The fires had raged through portions of the Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta, and Tehmas counties — burning almost one million acres of land. In total, the fire destroyed more than 1,300 structures and put tens of thousands more in danger. At the peak of the fires, also more than 6,000 people were working round the clock to contain the fire. Ultimately, the Dixie fire was reported to cost the state nearly 540 million dollars. The Dixie Wildfire serves as an excellent example of the danger of wildfires in the modern era. Years of climate change-driven drought have turned much of California into a region of kindling, turning fires into untamable beasts. As firefighter Kirsten Allison said “15 years ago, a 100,000-acre fire would be the largest fire of your career. Now, we have one-million-acre fires. It’s hard even for us to comprehend.”

Case Study: The Tunnel Five Fire

Wildfire season across the western coast of the United States does not tend to begin until late summer and early fall; however, many states have already begun to see the beginnings of another disaster-ridden fire season. The most recent large-scale wildfire seen on the west coast is currently occurring on the southern border of Washington State in Skamania County. The fire was first spotted on the morning of July 2nd and has grown to encompass an area of 550 acres over the course of 2 days — destroying 10 homes and putting at least 250 more at immediate risk. As of July 4th, the fire has remained completely uncontained. The Tunnel Five wildfire is just one of at least 21 notable wildfires currently ongoing in the American West.