Friday, April 3

The Quad: An overview of fires near UCLA in recent years and their causes

(Claire Guo/Daily Bruin)

I loved waking up to white, snowy mornings and canceled school days growing up on the East Coast. But in California, school days are canceled for other reasons: smoke, ash and destruction.

On Saturday, I woke up to the smell of a campfire. However, I soon realized that, because we’re on the West Coast, this smell didn’t always mean s’mores.

The source of the smell was none other than the Saddleridge fire, which broke out in the San Fernando Valley on Oct. 10.

California is no stranger to this sort of blaze. In fact, the state ranked second in number of wildfires in 2018. Even more notably, the number of acres burned in California wildfires was the highest in the nation in 2018.

It seems that wildfires are becoming more frequent and ferocious in recent years. They’ve certainly had an impact on UCLA, with a couple of recent fires prompting canceled activities and mass emails to Bruins. Three of these natural disasters in particular have had direct effects on our campus: The Skirball, Woolsey and now Saddleridge fires.

The Skirball Fire

The Skirball fire burned from Dec. 6 to Dec. 15, 2017, burning 422 acres in the Bel-Air area. Because of the fire’s proximity to campus, the smoke and ash were clearly visible in the sky from campus. The fire burned around the same time as a multitude of other fires across southern California.

For me, and probably many others, it was the first time I’d ever experienced any sort of wildfire. I was terrified and unsure of what to do.

UCLA responded by sending out email updates in order to keep the community safe and up to date on the situation. Classes were canceled Dec. 6 and Dec. 7 because of poor air quality. I was used to snow days back home, but this was my first “fire day.” Classes resumed Dec. 8 of that year when the fire was about 75% contained.

In an interview conducted by the Daily Bruin at the time of the fire, Suzanne Paulson, an atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor, seemed calm about the Skirball fire’s threat and advised students and faculty to stay indoors.

The Woolsey Fire

The Woolsey fire burned from Nov. 8 to Nov. 22, 2018, burning 96,949 acres in the Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. This fire, which burned around the same time as the highly destructive Camp fire in Northern California destroyed thousands of homes and affected thousands of lives.

The fire caused poor air quality in the UCLA area which called for cancelation of all outdoor recreation and sports activities until Nov. 11. UCLA did not cancel classes and no evacuation was called for, but areas such as Malibu, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Westlake Village, Agoura and unincorporated areas of the counties were issued an evacuation alert.

The Saddleridge Fire

The most recent fire in Saddleridge, which began Oct. 10, continues to burn throughout the Southern California area.

On Saturday, a BruinAlert was sent out that said air quality was considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.

The last BruinAlert sent out Sunday stated that the air quality was in the moderate range and that it was expected to continue improving. As of Friday, the fire had burned 8,799 acres and was 72% contained, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Changing climate

According to National Geographic, 75% of California’s largest fires in history have occurred since 2000. Research has shown that the increase in fires can be attributed to human-induced warming.

Fall is considered California’s fire season, when the summer has thoroughly dried foliage and vegetation and the winds start picking up. The hotter the summer, the drier the foliage and the greater the risk of wildfire – and California has warmed by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century.

In addition to higher temperatures and dry vegetation, winds play a factor in fire season as well.

Winds, such as the Santa Ana winds, are a driving force in the spread of fires as the gusts pickup the flames and spread fire quickly. There is continued research into how climate change will affect winds but there remains a lot of uncertainty and debate around the topic.

Alex Hall, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, said that up until now, there has been a large focus on fire suppression, putting out the fire as fast as possible instead of letting it burn out, which has caused a large build-up of fuels, leading to larger fires.

“Fire is a natural and a necessary part of California’s ecology,” Hall said. The expectation that we should never have fire is wrong. We need fire. California’s ecosystem needs fire at the appropriate intervals to regenerate.”

He also stressed the importance of learning how to better predict fire as the climate changes.

“We need to improve our ability to predict fire, both when it occurs and better predictions of fire risks and changes in fire risks,” Hall said. “That’s a big challenge when we are talking about climate change because the climate is changing so the fire is evolving overtime. And we need to be able to predict that.”

Given the current research on climate change and California wildfires, it doesn’t look like the blazes will be slowing anytime soon.

In the meantime, there are many things that residents can do to help protect their homes and prevent the spread of wildfires. The National Fire Protection Association suggests landscaping and home-protection tips to help prevent the spread of fire and protect your home, such as clearing off high-risk fire fuels like pine needles and dry leaves or taking precautions to prevent embers from entering through soft vents in attics or accumulating under porches.

I did all the magic tricks back home in order to hopefully bring on a snow day: wore my PJs inside out, put a silver spoon under my pillow and flushed ice down the toilet. Conversely, in California, we should be doing everything to prevent our “fire days” – and the tricks don’t have to be magic.

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