Written by Lori Sinanian
Did the title of this piece catch your attention because you were wondering what happened four months ago? Did you notice the word “or” in the title, and felt the unsure connotation it brought of whether or not it was actually around four months ago, or more than two months ago?
Remember the Eagle Rock fire? How about the Getty Fire? Those are just two examples of fires that were from about two or more months ago.
Without statistical proof, I assume that if the fire wasn’t where you were geographically, if it wasn’t in your peripheral view, it’s easy to forget when the fire occurred and what happened afterward. But when it’s close to home and one’s entire neighborhood burns down, it’s the opposite effect for that person; they remember it vividly and for the rest of their life. It’s either you know what happened with the fire or you don’t. The way news works nowadays is that almost everything is considered “breaking news.” Almost never are we updated with the end result of breaking news segments, hence why it’s easy to forget about what the breaking news was in the first place.
Now that we understand the foreshadowing, I want to focus on why it’s important to keep track of the history of fires, as it determines more than just the fire itself. Two words: climate [and] change. Now, I include the word ‘and’ to establish that climate change can also work as a compound word. Climate exists, change can. But notice how climate simply exists and change may or may not exist? It is up to the climate change believers to decide whether change exists, solidifying the legitimacy of the words “climate change.” Climate [and] change can also work as a verb, too. If attention is brought to climate change-related issues, further change can commence.
I spoke to Climatepedia of the University of California, Irvine to get a better understanding of wildfires and thereafter. Disclaimer: Climatepedia is an ambassador organization on UCI’s campus as communicators to bring awareness to the topic of climate change.
Q. What should the public know about wildfires?
A. Some ecosystems are actually adapted to fire regimes. That is, they are adapted to fires that happen at a particular frequency (e.g. once every 50 years) with a certain degree of intensity. These adaptations vary, however, with some plants able to resprout after fires while others use fire as a cue for their seeds to start germinating. Nevertheless, large, frequent wildfires are harmful to the environment since they burn native plants, allowing more flammable invasive plants to invade an ecosystem, out-competing native plants and causing massive ecosystem changes.
Everyone should know that wildfires are increasing in prevalence and magnitude, especially in California, as a result of droughts being exacerbated by climate change. With rising temperatures, droughts are more common, and plants are more likely to dry up and die. Dry vegetation is the perfect fuel to sustain a wildfire, so an abundance of it means wildfires can become more intense than ever. However, climate change isn’t the only factor worsening wildfires—factors like habitat fragmentation, unsustainable farming and logging practices (such as the recent Amazon fires), and a weak firefighting budget also makes fires more difficult to contain. In addition, humans can directly cause the vast majority of fire ignitions in a region; this is true in the Santa Monica Mountains, according to a 2008 paper in the International Journal of Wildland Fire entitled “Predicting Spatial Patterns of Fire on a Southern California Landscape.” One of our members went on a class field trip to the San Jacinto Mountains. As he and his class hiked through the mountains, they stopped at a burned site, and the professor who led the field trip explained that the fire at this site originated in someone’s backyard.
Most importantly, the public should know about their local resources and what they should do during and after a fire, such as emergency/evacuation plans. Homeowners can prevent fires and protect their homes by clearing trees, brush, and wood piles around their houses. They can also ensure that their house is made of fire-resistant materials.
Q. Have they gotten worse over the years? More significant?
A. Definitely, wildfires are more frequent and harder to contain, and aside from the other factors we mentioned, climate change also increases wildfire frequency. Plants release water from their leaves in a process known as transpiration. As temperatures rise and droughts become more frequent, transpiration increases while the amount of water available to plants in the soil decreases, drying out more and more plants. In addition, more intense precipitation comes in increasingly short intervals; that is, short periods of time occur when there is more intense rainfall. The soil cannot soak up so much water over such a short period of time. A significant portion of the water will become runoff and be unavailable for plants to use, increasing the risk that plants dry out which, in turn, increases wildfire frequency and intensity. This poses a great risk to not only peoples’ lives but also our climate goals.
In 2018, more than 90 lives were lost to wildfires. Those with respiratory issues suffer from worsening symptoms due to poor air quality, which could impact their short term and long term health. Those whose homes are burned down (including wildlife) by the wildfires are displaced and have to find a new place to live. In addition, increasing wildfires form a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change: fires release carbon dioxide, intensifying climate change, drying out more plants, causing more frequent and intense fires, releasing more carbon dioxide, and on and on, causing a vicious cycle. As a matter of fact, a fire that burns for a week can “undo a year’s worth of carbon-reduction efforts.”
Q. Why does your club exist?
A. To educate the public about climate change risks and solutions. We bring together students who are concerned and want to take action about our changing climate, regardless of their background.
Q. What is one of the more recent initiatives your club has done?
A. We are currently helping to develop a climate change solutions conference that will take place on Feb. 1, 2020, at Orange Coast College. There, we will host interactive activities to teach people about the science behind climate change and what they can do to help, whether it be by carpooling, eating less meat, or taking shorter showers.
We are also starting a project called Earth Clock which will be an online database of real-time climate change stats based on people’s daily activities in certain areas. We also aim to teach younger generations about climate change by frequently posting “climate memes” on the Instagram page @climate_memes, which currently has around 2,200 followers. This page conveys news and facts about climate change in an entertaining way and generates conversation about what we can do to help mitigate it.
Q. Why is it important to care about climate change?
A. The real question should be “Why is it NOT important to care about climate change?” It affects everyone and threatens our very existence on this planet. It is not a problem we can afford to leave for future generations to deal with. It is a problem we need to fix now before we face irreversible environmental damage. It affects our agriculture, infrastructure, increases diseases, and weakens biodiversity. We can and must take legislative, technological, and cultural actions to mitigate irreversible effects before it is too late.
Q. Did any of your club members get displaced because of the fires/or know of anyone who did?
A. None of us have personally been displaced from fires, but we all know someone who has felt like their life was threatened and had to take action. For example, friends have packed up all their things and have had to evacuate or almost had to. A good friend of mine lived in a decent home in the San Bernardino mountains, then the Blue Cut Fire burned it down and he now lives in motorhomes on the property. It is hard to understand the dangers of wildfires on people’s lives until they are lived. Unfortunately, we discussed that the number of fires and media footage on them has desensitized many Californians, so many of us feel helpless and that it’s the norm to constantly have them. They are not as surprising as they should be.
“California: where the snow is ash” —Emily Lui, 19, UCI Climatepedia, Public Policy, ‘19
It’s important to never let climate change become stagnant words. If we let it become stagnant, we, the supporters become voiceless. And if we become voiceless, this force behind climate change diminishes. The opposite effect will occur if climate change is a topic that stays alive. With the inevitable voices of its supporters, the topic of climate change will become augmented.
Lori is a UCI student studying English where she is a content writer for InSight Magazine. As a community advocate, journalist, and a literature scholar, she has come to appreciate the versatility of language in its many genres and modes. Lori enjoys people-watching and spending time with anybody who is able to make her laugh. She can be reached at [email protected]