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California wildfires destroy water, soil, air

December 12, 2018

California wildfires destroy water, soil, air

November saw California’s head and tail burn with more efficiency and destruction than in any year since record keeping began. Wildfires caused the deaths of more than 90 people and destroyed more than 20,000 homes or structures across California, according to CalFire.

California’s biggest, deadliest and most destructive wildfires in recorded history have occurred in the past few years, and if current climate reports are accurate, Californians should prepare for more. 

As the federal climate report released earlier this month stated, “Rising air and water temperatures and changes in precipitation are intensifying droughts, increasing heavy downpours, reducing snowpack and causing declines in surface water quality.”

The anticipated hotter climate and more intense fires pose significant threats to soil, water and air quality. 

According to a journal published by the United States Department of Agriculture, the average acreage consumed by wildfires in U.S. forests and grasslands have substantially increased since 1990. 

California’s fire season typically begins in summer and ends in the winter, but changing climate and increased warming and drying has led to California’s fire season prolonging without an obvious end. 

So far this year, the state has had 7,579 fires leveling more than 1.5 million acres, outpacing last year’s most destructive and deadly fire season in state history.

The journal contends that a combination of disease mortality, insect activity, overstocked vegetation and excessive fire suppression culminated in perfect conditions for “catastrophic wildfire.”

While the safety of the public and the financial impact receive and deserve a lot of attention, wildfires can have substantial consequences on their surrounding environment — and in some cases globally — including the quality and supply of water as well as increasing the risk of flooding. 

“As interior, I got a bill for about $870 million,” said United States Secretary of Interior, Ryan Zinke during a press conference in Butte County on Nov. 14. “And that was just to repair infrastructure, to repair watersheds, that didn’t include fighting the forest fires.”

Fires can be natural environmental regulators — when burning at a low to moderate intensity, they clear excess vegetation, which exposes the forest floor to sunlight, feeds the soil and rejuvenates water sources. 

That encourages new plant growth and creates room for forests inhabitants.

However, when fires evolve from low intensity to high intensity, positive benefits are burned away. 

“If they burn hot enough, [fires can] change the chemical makeup [of soil] and it can become a piece of glass,” said Timothy Evans, a United States Forest Service soil scientist and public information officer. 

California has lost hundreds of thousands of acres in carbon sinks while also releasing their storage straight into the atmosphere along with burning chemicals.

According to a journal published by the USDA, threats to soil include increased erosion rates, severe nutrition depletion, changes in composition and chemistry and loss of microbiota. 

Additionally, wildfires release large amounts of carbon dioxide, black and brown carbon, as well as volatile organic compounds, which threaten air quality on regional and global scales.

In the case of the Camp Fire, the air was filled with industrial chemicals after more than 20,000 structures burned. 

“This isn’t your standard grass fire,” said Sacramento Fire Chief Chris Vestal, a public information officer during the Camp Fire. “The wood has glue in it, there’s tar, plastics, all the furniture chemicals.”

According to the United States Geological Survey, wildfires can affect water quality for years to come as ash settles on lakes and reservoirs, poisoning the water or clogging hydropower plants and dams. 

California Trout, a non-profit conservation group aiming to protect California’s freshwater ecosystem, told Xpress that Butte Creek is one of the last strongholds for spring-run Chinook salmon, and home to a diverse group of species. 

“The biggest threat to that system from Camp Fire is from the runoff,” said Michael Wier, a field reporter at California Trout. 

“It will definitely add pollutants into the system that could affect juvenile fish.”

According to the agency, a number of species recently finished their breeding season, and all the runoff could clog up the spawning ground. If that happens, California could lose a large portion or all of the brood from this year’s spawn.

Additionally, when rain eventually falls, and the runoff doesn’t settle into rivers, streams and other bodies of water, it could lead to devastating flooding.

If fires burn too hot, soil becomes uninhabitable for plants, leading to further degradation. Following the Thomas Fire, which was the second largest fire in California’s history, 281,000 acres of soil were left bleached, detached from vegetation and unable to support new vegetation.

 In early January of 2018, record rainfalls resulted in massive debris flows of fast moving mudslides that killed 23 and swallowed 400 homes.

Santa Clara Sheriff’s search and rescue volunteer digs through layers of burnt debris in the remnants of a house off New Skyway in Magalia, Calif., on Nov. 17, 2018. (Lorenzo Morotti/Golden Gate Xpress)