Global Reset: California struck by record wildfire season

Several lives lost, over 3.7 million acres burn as dry weather conditions bring fires with new intensity


Esha Gohil

The Bay Area Sky turned shades of orange and yellow in September of 2020 due to the fires ravaging the state.

Fires have swept across California with over 3.7 million acres in land burned, as of October 3. The state has been dealing with the lasting effects of a harsh heatwave that prompted the California Independent System Operator (ISO), which oversees the state’s electric power system, to declare a temporary Stage 3 Emergency on August 14.

Both the recent heatwave and the effects of Santa Ana and Diablo winds, formed by high-pressure air masses in the Great Basin, create dangerous conditions that spark fires and intensify existing ones. Increased amounts of  dried-out vegetation due to the drought-like conditions this year then contribute to the rapid spread of the fires. and the winds, one in Southern California and the other in Northern California, create the perfect conditions to spark and spread the fires.

“It’s a combination of longer, hotter, dryer seasons, but also these many, many decades of suppression leading to overgrowth of the forest,” Dr. Eric Appel, assistant professor of materials science at Stanford University and fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said. “There’s just too much in the way of fuels in the forest, and so that’s what allows these fires to become so catastrophic.”

As the fires drew closer to students and faculty homes, with the C.Z.U. August Lightning Complex spreading through San Mateo and Santa Cruz County and the S.C.U. Lightning Complex spreading east of San Jose, evacuation orders were put in place as precautionary measures.

“I think the biggest thing that people can do is just be prepared,” Sachi Bajaj (12), co-president of the upper school Green Team, said. “All these wildfires are a wake-up call. Our planet is deteriorating; climate change is real. Your health is at stake, and just be aware about that.”Being aware of the dangers is one of the first steps that people can take to stay safe, in addition to having an emergency supply kit readily available before immediate evacuation is needed.

“It’s really important to keep track of what’s going on, especially if the fires are growing — or even if they aren’t —  and just to be aware of where they’re located and what communities are being impacted by it,” Natasha Yen (12), co-president of Green Team, said. 

Though firefighting efforts against large wildfires that have ignited often fall outside the reach of individual people in the community, many preventative opportunities for community efforts exist, both during and before peak periods of wildfire risk. 

“On an individual homeowner and community scale, creating defensible spaces and doing fuels management projects in the area, like controlled burns — those are really important,” Dr. Appel said. “[And] you need a lot of buy-in from everybody. On red flag warning days, people need to be cognizant: listen to Smokey Bear when they say only you can prevent forest fires.”