By Joe Guzzardi
July 27, 2016
In California’s Santa Clarita Valley, just north of Los Angeles, devastating wildfires have scorched more than 35,000 acres, set homes ablaze, created mandatory evacuation conditions, downed power lines, melted cars and left the July summer sky with an eerie red tint. One observer compared the flames as they raced down a steep, tinder-dry hillside to "a freight train." As a safety measure, parks along the glorious Big Sur have been temporarily closed.
A representative for the 3,500-strong firefighter coalition called the fires “a big animal,” and said that they’re destroying an average of 10,000 football fields every day. Containment, the expert predicted, would be slow. Even though some of the 20,000 to 30,000 people evacuated have been allowed to return home, high winds, temperatures that reached 100 degrees, and years of extreme drought have made completely controlling the fires a challenge. Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said that because of the extended drought, the fire season is no longer limited to a particular time of year, but can happen at any time. California has declared a state of emergency for the affected areas.
The Union of Concerned Scientists and other analysts have linked the increasing number of Western wildfires, and their longer duration, to climate change. Average annual temperatures in the West have increased 1.9 degrees F. since 1970, winter snow packs melt four weeks earlier than in previous decades, and fire season is two months longer than it was five decades ago. According to the USDA Forest Service, over the past 12 years, every Western U.S. state has undergone an increase in the average number of large wildfires per year compared to the former 1980-2000 annual average.
But another think tank, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), acknowledges that while climate change might play a role, a less discussed variable—population growth—may be more significant in wildfires’ year-to-year increases. Leiwen Jiang, a prominent NCAR scientist, wrote that climate change alone cannot be considered the sole cause for wildfires but that population growth must be included as an important contributing factor.
That’s bad news for California and its wildfire vulnerability. Statewide, California’s population has increased more than five percent since 2010. During the same five-year period, Los Angeles and Santa Clarita counties have grown more than four percent. Those percentage increases many appear modest to non-demographers, but in reality they’re huge. The California Department of Finance projects that the state’s population growth will continue unabated through 2050 when it will hit 50 million, nearly 10 million more than today’s 39 million. More frequent, more widely-spread wildfires are inevitable.
In his study titled “Population Trumps Climate and Carbon in Shaping the Future of Wildfires,” Jiang concluded that population growth will increase wildfire probability, and will also determine how resilient U.S. society will be in the future as it tries to adopt to crushing urbanization.
While stabilizing California’s population is a challenge, family planning and sensible immigration policies—goals that are within reach and would limit growth—would be important first steps in the right direction.
Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @joeguzzardi19.