Whether you live beachside in SoCal or in another part of the country entirely, it’s likely you’ve seen— or even smelled— it: California wildfires.
It’s hard to forget those pictures of what looked like the 405 Freeway submerged in an inferno or news footage of family homes engulfed by flames.
Wildfire season is an annual occurrence for the Golden State. It’s a period of year that coincides with the end of summer, onset of fall and, often, the influx of the Santa Ana winds.
In other words, California is as dry as ever this time of year. Across the state, reasoning for the ignition of fires spans from fallen down power lines to arson to fireworks. And with each summer returning hotter and hotter, it sounds like the withering away of moisture positions California for total destruction, but actually fires are a natural occurrence.
As explained by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (also known as CAL FIRE), fire has always been part of the earth’s ecosystem. In what is now North America, lightning and volcanic activity regularly started fires for millions of years, as did Native Americans who burned vegetation to open up land that would favor plants that attracted animals they could hunt. Because these plants and animals adapted, such ecosystems now benefit from fire.
In fact, fire is essential to the health of most of California’s ecosystems. As explained by CAL FIRE, certain plant communities across the state need fire so their plants germinate. It also clears out the forest floor so that it can access sunlight and regrow to generate grasses, herbs and shrubs for the wildlife to eat.
Also, when the ground has accumulated a lot of branches and dry litter, fire is able to reduce this debris, which furthermore provides the soil nutrients. “Periodic burns in an area help use up the fuel, [any organic material that can feed fire], which means that successive fire is less intense and less destructive than when fires are suppressed and plant debris accumulates,” CAL FIRE explains.
And despite the mass wreckage during fire season the last few years, the western United States has actually been in a fire deficit in comparison to the past 3,000 years. It comes as a result of climate change, ecological differences and human activities, such as reduced indigenous burning and the actual putting out of fires for the last 100 years.
In response, there has been an increase in prescribed fires in recent years, which allows for the removal of underbrush, debris and dead vegetation that could otherwise serve as fuel for a potentially high-intensity, uncontrolled burn.
Prescribed burns encourage regeneration of trees and herbaceous plants. What’s more, there is evidence that it also increases forest resilience to drought. One 2016 study even found that managed wildfires positively impact an ecosystem’s water balance.
And to keep an eye on wildfire activity, you can always look to the Wildfire Defense tracker.
Photography by: Unsplash/Will Truettner