What Is the Impact of California Wildfires on the Environment?

Albert Hammond’s famous song from the early 1970s says “It Never Rains in Southern California.” But over the past four-plus years his song title could be rightfully changed to “It Never Rains Anywhere in California!” In 2018 California entered its fourth year of a record-breaking drought. And it is one that has wreaked havoc upon the California environment and numerous communities, as well as upon hundreds of thousands of residents and the state’s entire economy.

In both August and the final quarter of last year another retinue of huge fires blazed throughout the state, most notably in Northern and parts of Southern California.  Since 2015 then-Governor Jerry Brown had declared a State of Emergency each year throughout California, and strict statewide conservation measures to be imposed. One of the most threatening aspects of the long drought during each year has been the ever increasing abundance of dry terrain.

So many years of drought in California have left dry brush and foliage and huge areas of dead trees which have helped fuel the fires. Fortunately, the drought officially ended in many areas of the state beginning in late December of 2018 and continuing on as of this writing. But tremendous damage and destruction have already been done. And the rebuilding process may take decades to accomplish.

Some Recent Major Fires and Their Impact on Agriculture and Communities

In northern California there was the Camp Fire of November 2018. It is now considered the state’s most destructive and deadliest wildfire in history, destroying 153,336 acres (almost 240 square miles) and 18,804 structures, and causing at least 85 deaths, with three people still missing.

In the latter months of 2017 huge fires raged in Northern California’s wine country, including Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties. And by the second week of October, it was estimated that at least 222,000 acres had been charred and over 5,700 homes and structures destroyed. Plus, at least 35 people were killed, with hundreds reported missing. At that time, experts estimated economic losses between $3 billion to $6 billion.

In late 2017 fires also severely impacted Lake, Solano, Yuba and Nevada counties in Northern California as well as Orange County in the south. In all, a State of Emergency was declared in 10 counties by then-California Governor Jerry Brown. Officials noted that the loss of lives, destruction of infrastructure and homes and the potential environmental damage to several regions in the state would take years to recover. And all this was in 2017, a year before 2018 when even a greater number of worst fires arrived to devastate California.

What’s worse about the fires in Northern California is their occurrence in areas where agriculture is a major part of the local economy and producing crops that feed the entire country; the fires’ fiery destruction hugely impacted numerous fruit and vegetable crops, and grape crops for making wine as well as livestock and poultry.

Not only wine grape production was severely harmed, but there remains considerable acreage destroyed that bore peaches, apples, pears, olives, walnuts and almonds and many, many other crops. As it is, over 11 wineries were severely affected both economically and environmentally from fires in 2017 and 2018. They and hundreds of farms, ranches and agricultural and other kinds of business may take years to recover, not to mention the loss in lives and homes.

The Environmental Impact of California’s Wildfires

As previously noted, of the many large fires that scorched populated areas of California in 2018, the Camp Fire was the worst, burning north of Sacramento and San Francisco, and incinerating the entire town of Paradise, previously the second-largest city in Butte County with a former population of 26,682 people.

During the same time, in Southern California, thousands of residents in Calabasas and Malibu and other areas around Los Angeles had to evacuate due to the Woolsey Fire, which killed at least two people. Firefighters also battled the Rocky Peak Fire, which ignited near where the Woolsey Fire began, and forced the shutdown of the Route 118 Freeway and other major highways. 

Many people think that a wildfire’s devastation is over and done with once the fire has been extinguished. But seldom is that ever the case. Scientists and wildfire experts know that a wildfire’s devastating impact can last for years to come, even decades. In addition, the environmental damage caused by such a fire can be irreversible and leave an entire region in environmental ruin. Trees do not quickly grow back and cannot even grow because of soil destruction and erosion caused by fire. Suddenly, invasive and animal-unfriendly weeds and unmanageable grasses spout up and begin to outnumber native brush and plants, hurrying further erosion and even leading to more fires.

Wildlife of most every kind, including wolfs, mountain lions, rodents, rabbits, small birds and other indigenous animals that rely on California’s native vegetation may have trouble finding enough food to live. Environmentalists say the full extent of the damage may not be known for years. Another certain fact is if an area is attacked by a fire twice within a five-to-10-year period, the environment’s native brush and shrubs may not be able to mature and grow seeds and replenish ever again.

The Economic Impact of California’s Wildfires

By trying to increase seasonal variation in employment the year after, large wildfires often cause instability in local labor and business markets. In general, local employment usually increases just 1 percent during the quarter in which a wildfire occurs for every $1 million spent in that locality and time period.  

The loss of businesses in a city, county or region impacted by fire can severely suppress employment on a long-term basis. It is not only the loss of present jobs, but the absence of new jobs. When businesses disappear, so then do jobs, and then people leave and move away, and new businesses and new jobs may not return for years. Even worse is the impact upon the tourism trade. A lack of shopping and entertainment venues and restaurants and eateries, all economically affected or ruined by fire, no longer exist. The same becomes true for the hospitality business and real estate industry. A whole region can be so devastated by a wildfire that new investments, reinvestment and rebuilding in impacted municipalities may not occur for decades.

A domino like effect often takes place after a community is devastated by a disaster like the Camp Fire in Northern California. Lives and homes are lost, as well as numerous businesses and infrastructure. Literally every business, and every type of business, in that community is financially impacted, often to the degree of bankruptcy. Thus, a tragedy on many levels results.

The Immediate and Long-Term Health Concerns Caused by California Wildfires

The smoke from wildfires can be an extremely noxious combination of chemicals. Of most immediate concern are often microscopic particles that are products of incomplete combustion, difficult to see or detect, and which are able to lodge deep inside many areas in the body including the lungs. Long-term effects from wildfire smoke can consists of numerous industrial chemicals. These come from homes and building structures, furniture and carpets and a host of manmade objects that are burned to a cinder during such a blaze.

In essence, there is an endless array of lethal chemicals in a fire’s smoke. It also includes chemicals emitted from burning metals, plastics and shingles, asphalt, cement and insulation. In fact, there are literally hundreds of thousands of chemicals people can inhale during a fire event that can include lead, copper, asbestos, ammonia, carbon monoxide and other lethal gases. All these can lead to serious respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease and even cancer.

The strain put upon healthcare costs and health insurance, individually and on a large scale, is just more of the devastation caused by wildfires. And which California residents throughout the state have suffered tremendously over the past four-plus years. Wildfires clearly correlate with drought, rising temperatures, extreme weather and areas fueled by dry foliage. As the frequency, size and intensity of wildfires increase, many Californians fear so will the devastation and tragedy they will continue to suffer in the years ahead.