For the past couple of months, the world has stared in shock at the stark scenes of devastation of the ongoing wildfires crisis on the west coast of the United States of America. By now, all are sure to have seen the pictures of orange skies that look like some filter placed on an apocalypse horror movie, or the vast amounts of smoke that the fires cause. All of this had had a massive impact on conservation efforts in the area where operations have had to be suspended.
WorkingAbroad’s California Conservation Project, where volunteers gain experience in ecological restoration and conservation work, has been directly impacted by the fires with the group responsible for running it explaining what happened when they received a mandatory evacuation order.
“Our lives changed mid-August, when the CZU Lightning Complex fire began in San Mateo County started by lightning storms which travelled the length of the state on this weekend. The fire progressed south and merged with other smaller fires into Santa Cruz County and at this point we heeded the mandatory evacuation order. Several crews were out of town at the time, and 2 crews were currently on their time off. Along with the residents of the town of Boulder Creek, CA, we found alternative housing for members and staff as this was the top priority. All of our members remain safely relocated as we’ve utilized alternative housing sites and project assignments this month.”
The group says the wildfires have had an impact on the US Forest Service as well, and while the closure of national forests is temporary, they say that “the damage to Boulder Creek and our Redwood Campus will be felt for months and years to come.”
Despite the devastation of the wildfires the group says there are reasons to remain optimistic saying that many trail work and restoration projects will be available soon.
“There is a great deal of hope that in partnership with dedicated volunteers, we will resume hosting immersive conservation projects and that we will continue to grow to offer more opportunities for travel, exploration, and resume-building in the public land management industry.”
As great as the devastation has been there are some good signs on the ground as well, with news that many of California’s ancient redwood trees in Big Basin State Park have survived the fire. Some of the trees are 2,000 years old and would be impossible to replace if lost. The trees’ bark and heartwood act as a natural flame retardant, giving the trees a much better chance of withstanding a wildfire than most.
The wildfires have though done much more than just damage property and land. They have also dramatically damaged the air quality of the western coast of the U.S. It was reported that the city of Portland in Oregon was found to have the worst air quality of anywhere on the planet due to the smoke from the fires, with doctors warning that anyone breathing the air would be exposed to serious health risks. The amount of smoke generated by these fires is so large that it spread across the continent. The smoke was reported in Ontario, Canada, which is over a thousand kilometres from the fires, although there is no serious affects to the air quality at that distance.
According to CAL FIRE, an organisation that tracks wildfires in California, there have been over 8,320 wildfire incidents that have burned over 4 million acres in California since the beginning of the year. Over 8,600 structures have been destroyed and 31 people lost their lives [as of 8th October 2020].
The so-called ‘August Complex’ fire that has been raging across seven counties in Northern California, recently expanded beyond 1m acres. This has classified it into a so-called “Giga-fire“, which has never been used in a contemporary setting in California.
Climate change is undoubtedly at work with the fires. This summer was much more dry than normal, causing larger fires that burn more quickly. It’s likely that if this continues, the fires we see this year could become the norm on the west coast of America. In an analysis by Climate Central from 2016, it was already then stated that the wildfire season is three months longer and that big wildfires like these are three times more common across the US west coast than just 50 years ago. It states that it is “approaching the point where the notion of a fire season will be made obsolete by the reality of year-round wildfires across the West.”
The scale of how many people are working to get the fires under control is hard to comprehend, with over 16,500 firefighters currently deployed around the state to battle 22 major wildfires and one extended attack wildfire. Just a few days ago, firefighters had to respond to another 25 new wildfires, according to CAL FIRE. The main concern is the effect of the fires themselves on communities in their path and the environment as a whole. Until the fires are fully extinguished, we won’t know exactly how much total land will have burned, houses tragically lost and how many animals have died in the fires.
Written by WorkingAbroad blog writer, James Gaughan