Study Finds Humans Caused Almost All California Forest Fires

Greg Obernesser | FireFire
Firefighter overlooks the Carr Fire. Credit: WGNTV

If you have had a pulse in the last few months, there is no doubt that you have heard about the beyond arid conditions of the western half of the United States and particularly the fires in California. The Carr Fire is one of the worst wildfires in the history of California and is a very alarming natural disaster. There is a monumental question to be answered; Who is to blame for these fires?

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Carr Fire. Credit: Washington Post

A recent study has made some very interesting findings regarding who is to blame for starting these fires. According to Mercury News, a recent study states that the spark that caused the fire is mostly attributed by human activity. Jon Keely,  a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center in Sequoia National Park, conducted the study and has been studying wildfire patterns since 1910. The study has found during that time humans accounted for 95% of the forest fires, while lightning strikes account to the rest, and were specifically found in the northeast corner of the state.

In the Bay Area, the portion of human-caused fires ranged from 93 percent in Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties to 98 percent and 100 percent in Alameda and Marin counties, Keeley report[ed] in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

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Fire Map. Credit: Mercury News

One of the most interesting points made in the study was related to the locations of forest fires. The article argues that wildfires that are human triggered are created in areas that are unnatural for fires to start up because lightning rarely strikes there. Although the investigations of the 17 current wildfires in California are still underway, no lightning storms were reported in the area when they started.

Another interesting point made was concerning the specific activity that sparked the fire. Citing Mercury News:

Historically, the largest number of fires were caused by equipment, such as gas-powered weed cutters that strike a rock and cause a spark, said Keeley. Ignitions also are triggered by generators, lawn mowers, chainsaws, tractors and off-road vehicles without required spark arrestors. That is followed by arson, debris burning, kids playing with fire, smoking, vehicles and power lines.

Smoke trail from space. Credit: Risk Management Monitor

Humans directly creating forest fires are not the only culprit. Another point the article makes is that indirect human activity in the form of climate change has been a risk factor as well. According to Jennifer Balch, a director of the Earth Lab at University of Colorado, Boulder, says that since 1970 the western U.S. has seen an average uptick of 2°F in regional temperatures. What’s more, snowmelt is occurring a month earlier in certain areas and the length of fire season has increased by almost three months. Consequently, fires are bigger, hotter, lasting longer, and in locations where they naturally do not form.

Smokey the Bear. Credit: Boys Life

The light at the end of the tunnel is the fact that if we are causing 95% of all recorded wildfires since 1910 we can stop them. Whether that is through tighter rules and monitoring or another action, I am not sure how to tackle the problem best. But like Smokey says, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

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