Preventing Wildfires

November 20th, 2018
Ya Yang & Keith Martin MD

The Camp and Woolsey Fires devastating parts of California are not the first, nor will they be the last of their kind.

California has always had wildfires but what we have seen over the last year (2 out of the 10 worst fires since 1932 have occurred in 2018 alone) will only become more frequent unless the federal, state and local governments implement an integrated plan of action. This must include the private sector, academia, NGOs and the public.

The cause of these devastating fires is not a mystery. A lethal combination of climate change, accumulated plant debris and human habitation encroaching on areas at high risk of igniting has made California ripe for the tragedy that is currently unfolding.

While wildfires are inevitable, those that are causing the current levels of devastation are not. So what can be done to prevent them? A few solutions.
1. Use controlled burns to eliminate the flammable plant debris that has accumulated and turned large areas of California into tinder boxes.
2. Change land use regulations to stop the building of homes next to areas at high risk of igniting.
3. Adopt building codes that increase homes’ structural fire resilience.
4. The federal governments must enact measures to address climate change. California is doing an excellent job to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and protect carbon sinks, but it cannot do this alone. There is no substitute for national leadership to address this existential threat to the social and economic pillars of our lives. No amount of mitigation can offset the impact climate change is having on creating the hotter, drier seasons that are turning biomass on the ground into kindling.

Dozens of people have lost their lives in California this autumn due to fast, raging wildfires. Their passing for the most part was preventable. Let us learn from our past mistakes and implement the measures urgently needed to prevent future, devastating wildfires.

Ya Yang is a University of California intern at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH).
Dr. Keith Martin is CUGH’s Executive Director.