Why Are So Many Structures Burning in California?
California has earned a reputation for wildfires that inflict serious damage on human infrastructure, dating back to images of Richard Nixon hosing down the roof of his house in the 1961 Bel-Air fire, and of the famous “fireproof” home of grocery store entrepreneur Fred Roberts burning to the ground in 1982. In recent years, this notoriety has been transformed into public alarm, reflected in the apocalyptic headlines of recent newspaper articles suggesting the “end of California” (New York Times, 30 October 2019) and that “California is becoming unlivable” (The Atlantic, 30 October 2019). Now the phrase “the new normal” has worked its way into the lexicon, sustained by record-breaking struc- ture loss numbers in 2017 and 2018 despite significantly lower structure losses in 2019.
It remains to be seen whether or not those two recent years were back-to-back one-in-a-hundred-year events, or if the trend has crossed some kind of tipping point, but data do show a longterm trend of significant increase in structures lost to wildfires since the beginning of the 20th century (Fig. 1). What was an average of ~500 homes lost per year in Southern California from about 1950–2000 (CalFire 2000) has recently climbed to ~2700 structures per year statewide from 2000–2018 (Syphard and Keeley 2019). California is not alone in the U.S., or in the world, in suffering increasing impacts from wildfires (e.g., Blanchi et al. 2012, Haynes 2015, Viegas 2018). Impacts so far in the current Australian bushfire season have been recordbreaking, with several thousand structures lost, more than 25 fatalities, and unthinkable losses to wildlife. The question that follows, then, is why?
Syphard, Alexandra D. and Jon E. Keeley. (2020). Why are so many structures burning in California? Fremontia. Vol. 47, No. 2: 28-35.