Follow the Timeline: The Source of California’s Gigafires

CLIMATE POLITICS-When I attended Catholic grade school, once a year, every year, a fireman would come to school and talk about fire.

At first this was interesting, and novel. Rarely would we students be allowed to attend some kind of class outside of the curriculum. And to listen to a fireman talk about fire was interesting. But as the years wore on, and as I aged in school, the annual talk with the fireman became less interesting, even if it was a welcome break from the daily routine. 

To this day I do not know why this fireman came to the school. There was no special class given by a policeman, doctor, nurse, engineer, accountant, dentist, or other professional, yet there he was, year after year with the same lesson. 

While I forget most of the lesson, what I do remember is the formula for fire: heat, fuel, and oxygen. As our California wildfires continue to burn, the three basic elements for fire have not changed. 

Yet, the scope and destruction of California’s fires have changed. They have increased in strength, size, ferocity, and in acres burned. These fires are unprecedented in the history of California, and indeed what seems to be recorded history. 

If the formula of the basic elements of fire are not changed, yet forest and wildfires have changed, which element, or elements of the formula have changed? 

Oxygen is still the same, but with the continuing polluting of the air which holds oxygen, the level of oxygen may have changed. If the oxygen levels of the air have changed, it does not yet seem enough to cause changes to our breathing, otherwise, hospitals would be overrun with people having difficulty breathing, outside of our ongoing tragedy of COVID-19. 

This leaves the two other elements, fuel and heat. But have both of these elements changed? If so, which one has changed more, and when did the change occur? And are they still changing? 

Many people of high intelligence, solid education, deep research, integrity, and skills point to heat as the most changed element. Many are scientists to whom not enough of us are listening as they issue dire warnings of the existential threat of global warming from the continuing release of carbon gases into the atmosphere caused by mankind burning fossil fuels. 

The greatest, most destructive forest and wildfires in terms of size of area burned, the destruction of property, and number of deaths, have occurred within the past ten to fifteen years.  

This year’s California fire season has already exceeded four million acres burned, doubling the previous record. The still burning August Complex fire has, on its own, exceeded one million acres burned.  

This is completely off the charts, and if the recent past of a continuing rise of global temperature is a prologue, we will see even more deadly and destructive fires in the coming years. 

However, there are some, and it seems to be a minority, but a vocal minority who are now in power, who do not believe global warming from man-made carbon gases is the culprit to be blamed for Earth’s steadily rising temperatures, or the source of the ever increasing destruction of California forest and wildfires. 

The most recent fires are a new phenomenon, yet the doubters and deniers lay blame on the third element: fuel. They blame the environmental movement for allowing the forests to become cluttered with undergrowth as the cause for the gigafires now raging. Even if this were true, they cannot blame environmentalists for the recent megafires burning in the wild lands, outside of forests.  

The cluttering of the forests with dense undergrowth is not the provenance of the environmental movement which did not really hit its stride until the 1960s. Before that, around the turn of the previous century the United States Forest Service, to support the lumber industry, allowed their forested land to become cluttered with undergrowth and over-populated with trees, allowing for more timber to be lumbered. This also created more fuel for fires. 

From that time of allowing forests to become cluttered to supply more lumber until the last ten years, there were forest and wildfires every year, as is the natural course for California. Yet those past fires did not develop into the raging infernos we now suffer. The fires were suppressed to preserve the supply of lumber.         

The formula of fire: heat, fuel, and oxygen, has not changed. Oxygen levels have not dramatically changed, and the cluttered forests have remained cluttered for over a century.  

While the timeline of the burning of fossil fuels creating global warming roughly parallels the new foresting method of the cluttered forests, the increases in temperature were low key in the beginning, but within the past fifteen years the temperature of the planet, and California, day and night, has increased dramatically, and this steep increase perfectly parallels the timeline of the increases of the infernos of California’s fires which we now suffer through.            

It is strange how a seemingly inconsequential class like the fireman talking to Catholic grade schoolers could manifest itself decades later. Thank you, fireman for those lessons, and thank you to the Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for presenting what was not an inconsequential class, but one which taught the source of the destruction of California’s infernos: heat. 


(Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and former member and president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra. He is a CityWatch contributor.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.