With wildfires expected to increase in frequency and intensity in California and elsewhere in the U.S., UCLA Fielding School of Public Health faculty address emerging public health concerns.
The camp fire that started on November 8, 2018 in Northern California’s Butte County burned through more than 150,000 acres and destroyed more than 18,000 structures over 17 days. Eighty-five lives were lost, making it the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. The Woolsey Fire, which started the same day, blazed through nearly 100,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, destroying more than 1,600 structures and forcing the evacuation of nearly 300,000 people.
The twin wildfire disasters were preceded in July 2018 by the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in the state’s history, which covered nearly 460,000 acres across four counties in Northern California. Before that, the largest was the Thomas Fire, which burned more than 280,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, in December 2017.
California’s wildfire season is starting earlier and ending later, and as the run of recent record setters suggests, the fires have increased in severity in recent years. There are reasons to suspect that climate change is an important factor. Most of the state’s hottest and driest years have occurred since 2000, and the longer spells without precipitation give vegetation more time to dry out and become more combustible. “Some areas of California are projecting a 200-300 percent increased risk by 2030 in wildfire events,” notes Dr. Michael Jerrett, professor and chair of the Fielding School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences.