Climate changes and the local environment:
Shasta County in northern California is one of multiple areas in the state that has experienced the drastic social and physical effects of wildfires. In 2018 alone, there were millions of acres nationwide burned by wildfires and over 1 million of those acres were in California alone. Over 38,000 people were evacuated from the city of Redding, the Shasta county seat. Also in 2018, the town of Paradise just south of Shasta county in Butte county was almost completely destroyed.
Climate change is a major factor in the prevalence of wildfires. Concurrent with the rise in average temperatures since the year 2000, eight out of the 10 biggest fires on record in California, have occurred. The state’s fire season is also longer, increasing from 65 days a year in the 1970s to 140 days in the 2000s.
Some people may confuse wildfires with controlled fires that occur in many places across the nation. Controlled fires benefit the environment by allowing for new growth, killing diseases affecting local wildlife, and clearing the forest floor, among many other positive outcomes. Wildfires, in contrast, are unpredictable and often detrimental. In addition to destroying homes and animal habitats, wildfires have been known to release black carbon and greenhouse gases that have an adverse effect on air quality.
How We Know:
Across the state of California, the prevalence of wildfires has become rampant, especially in Shasta County. Although there are many local factors such the location of the fires, wind conditions, or form of ignition that can determine the effects of wildfires, there is a strong correlation between larger warming effects in the Western U.S. and acres burned with about 40% of the cause being attributed to warming among other factors, according to Carbon Brief. The same research also suggests a major connection between the increase in seasonal temperatures and the extent of fires since the 1980s. The increase in acreage burned by wildfires is consistent with global rising temperatures as a result of climate change.
There are many effects that residents of Shasta County have experienced as a result of the increase in wildfires. As noted by the Shasta County Department of Resource Management, one of the more common results of wildfires is increased smoke exposure; this can be a major issue, especially for sensitive populations such as children, whose lungs are still in the process of development.
In addition, children can be even more at-risk for detrimental effects of wildfires due to the extreme trauma that occurs during evacuations and witnessing the fires. Being displaced from home, watching communities burn, and evacuation stress are all causes of extreme emotional trauma for wildfire victims. Although children are not the only at-risk population affected by these disasters, they do require more care and attention than the average adult during an emergency.
One area that especially affects older children is excessive exposure to media coverage. News coverage, while important for informing and educating people during emergencies, can cause anxiety, misunderstandings, and difficulties recovering emotionally for children with easy access to media sites. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, exposure to both the natural disaster itself and the coverage post-incident can be detrimental to the wellbeing of children and families.
Wildfires also can have a dramatic impact on local economies. Shasta County relies on tourism-related businesses surrounding Shasta Lake, Shasta Caverns, and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. According to an article from Scientific American, the constant wave of fires throughout the summer season caused a 50% decrease in local rentals as well as less foot traffic at local shops. When the physical environment is almost unbearable for local residents, there is bound to be less tourism throughout the usual seasons. While it may seem that wildfires only cause physical destruction, there are also many human consequences that arise after a traumatic disaster.
Forest Ecology and Management
Insurance Information Institute
U.S. Department of Agriculture
USDA Forest Service
Article Author: Madeline Wilson, William O. Douglas Honors College, Central Washington University
Article Editor: Dr. Tamara Caulkins, William O. Douglas Honors College, Central Washington University