California Forest Fires: How the forest fires have changed the world in the last 50 years

“Forest fires aren’t a new phenomenon. They have existed since the dawn of humanity. However, their frequency has increased in the last few decades.”

The first major recorded forest fires occurred in 1825. Known as the Miramichi Fires, it destroyed 3 million acres of land and killed at least 160 people. Fossil Charcoal indicates that forest fires have been occurring since the appearance of flora and fauna, 420 million years ago. However, earlier these fires were a rare occurrence with a major fire occurring once in a while. Recently, however, the frequency of these fires has greatly increased, with at least two wildfires occurring every year.

The recent Amazon Rainforest and California forest fires have woken everyone up. The damage done by these forest fires was unimaginable. The vast area of natural habitat lost by animals and birds in the Amazon rainforests was heart-wrenching, as was the horrifying images of celebrities running for their lives at California. It is the need of the hour to tackle forest fires.

Now, one may easily say that the forest fires are due to Global Warming. There is more. Along with global warming, there are several factors which instigate wildfires. Let’s look into the factors first for a better understanding:

  1. Precipitation followed by drought: This has been a leading factor in both wildfires and landslides. Years of rainfall followed by prolonged drought due to a sudden change in weather patterns can encourage widespread forest fires. What happens is that during precipitation, the soil gets moist and loosens. Now, due to a sudden change in weather patterns leads to excessive heat for a long time. This heat causes the soil to crack and erode. The bushes and trees, due to the loss of water intake, get hot and start to burn. Slowly, the whole area was in flames. This was seen in a wildfire in Venezuela.

  2. Deforestation: A human-induced cause, deforestation has been a major factor for forest fires. Trees, which provide us with life-giving oxygen, are being rapidly cut down in the name of ‘development’. Trees not only help to bind the soil but also keep it cool and somewhat moist. However, recently, rapid deforestation has led not only to soil erosion but also to excessive heating of the soil. This is especially dangerous in the tropical and sub-tropical forest, as they have small bushes which can ignite easily. Soon, the soil reaches the ignition point of the nearby bushes which start to burn. This burning makes the soil hot enough to literally burn and the fire starts to spread.

  3. Illegal human activities: This has become the most common factor of forest fires. Human activities such as illegal logging, which lead to the 2019 Amazon Forest fires, have devastated flora and fauna. Animals have lost their lands and have been displaced. The reason- PURE HUMAN GREED! Deforestation and climate change are today because of us and if we do not change our ways today, we will not have a tomorrow.

Role of Climate Change:

Climate change is a modern phenomenon. It was discovered by Guy Callendar in the 1930s, who called it the “Callendar Effect.” Climate change was not accepted as a real issue until 23 June, 1988, when James E. Hansen testified that climate change was a real issue, with his words, “The Earth is warmer in 1988 than in any time in the history of instrumental measurements.” This struck up a huge debate in the media and the world went crazy, trying to know more about it. On that very day, Western USA was engulfed in a huge forest fire, which destroyed crops and killed many. This was one of the biggest wildfires of that time. Now, it has been proven that climate change is the leading factor in forest fires. The excessive accumulation of Carbon Dioxide and Methane has led to unwanted warming of the earth due to the Green House effect. 

However, what is not known is that global warming has been contributing to forest fires for a longer period of time. For this, we need to go back to the world wars. The world wars led to the first cases of excessive carbon emissions. Industrialization was new and little was known about the ill-effects of carbon dioxide. In fact, renowned scientist, Arrhenius thought that warming of the Earth was beneficial for humans. Although, slowly with time scientists started to uncover more about this sinister phenomenon. The World Wars proved to be a major contributor. The bombings, the battles and the gun fires, everything gave off carbon. This had significantly increased the carbon level in the atmosphere. The rapid industrialization also released loads of carbon, especially automobile factories. The scientists also overlooked it. However, few like Andrew E. Douglass saw the effects of climate change in tree rings, and also tried to aware the public about. At this very point of time, many major forest fires took place. Some of the prominent were Great Matheson Fire of 1916, killing 223 and the 1949 Landes Forest Fires which displaced animals and killed at least 82. Slowly, industrialization led to the creation of a thick blanket of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. The heat gets captured by this layer and forest fires ignite. 

In the last 50 years, many major forest fires have erupted, leading to the death and displacement of both humans, and flora and fauna in massive numbers. The agony is that these numbers aren’t decreasing. The California forest fires have shown us the reality. For the first time in history, celebrities were seen running for their lives. The images of burnt houses and animals left people shocked. The Australian bushfires have displaced a record 50,000 kangaroos and maybe even more! 

The precautions for forest fires are a lot. Simple precautions such as putting off campfires or not throwing a burning cigarette butt can prevent such catastrophes from happening. Also, forest lines and controlled burning are effective ways to prevent wildfires. 

Whatever we may do, in the end, there is one extremely important precaution we collectively need to take: stop global warming.   

-Aryan Chowdhury