Lentis/The 2020 Western Wildfire Season in the U.S.


The state of California has the largest population in our nation, with over 40 million citizens. California also is known for its beautiful forests, which cover over 30% of the state’s land [1]. With the natural beauty of these forests comes the natural disaster of forest fires, which have been increasingly impacting the lives of Californians over the past few years. We are setting out to analyze the nature and impact of these fires through the perspectives of many different participant groups involved.


California WUI ExpansionEdit

As the state with the largest population, California has inherently seen significant population growth in the past few decades. California’s early population growth came from western states such as Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio; this was followed by a shift to international immigration from countries like Mexico, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. However, in recent years, California’s population growth has slowed due to the fact that the most promising land has become overpopulated [2].

As a result, California forests have come to be bordered by residential developments: these borders are known as the Wild-Urban Interface (WUI). The WUI is now the fastest growing land-use type in California, with over 25% of California’s population currently living on these borders[3]

Wildfire Activity in CaliforniaEdit

In parallel with this shift towards WUI living has come unprecedented wildfire activity in california. 6 of the top 20 most devastating wildfires in California history occurred in the year 2020 alone. In 2020, over 4.2 million acres have been burned, resulting in 31 fatalities [4]. Other than the year 2019, which was an anomaly in terms of rainfall, California has seen steady growth in the number of acres burned each year by wildfires for the past several decades [5]. This increase in fire activity along with the WUI shift pushes us to ask: “what is going on here?”

File:Min temp.png
Trend depicting minimum temperature (nighttime temperature) (F) in Santa Cruz during August since 1960, peaking in 2020 [6]


This past August was the hottest in state history. Record-breaking temperatures, drought, and 14,000 lightning strikes in three days ignited the fires and spread them quickly [7]. Also, rainfall was 50% of normal this year, and nighttime temperatures were six degrees warmer than normal [8]. These contributors are important because they are usually factors that help firefighters fight fires. Furthermore, inmate firefighting crews were smaller than usual after the state granted many inmates early release to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in crowded facilities [7].

Finally, wildfire management policy has emphasized suppression over prevention. From 1910 to 1970, wildfire policy in California dictated suppressing fires as quickly as possible. Flammable material such as dead trees and other foliage builds up until eventually, the inevitable fire is too large to control [9].


Effects The vast fires have created toxic air, blackouts, and heatwaves for millions of residents. Some effects can be long-term, such as breathing in the toxic air damaging lungs, and damaged drinking water systems [10]. With the 4.2 million acres burned, there were 10,488 structures damaged as of Nov. 19. This destruction left many without homes and many others to evacuate their homes during the time of danger. [11]. Wildlife, such as deer and wild cats, are also affected as many have their natural habitats destroyed, and many pets got lost in the fires [12].

Wildfires around the World in 2020Edit

This year, the Arctic and Siberian region, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia have also experienced their worst wildfires in decades. In each case, the causes can be different, but hotter and drier seasons are consistent throughout all of them [13].

Participant Impact & ActionEdit

California ResidentsEdit

Recent research finds that over 12 million Americans who live in fire-prone areas would be unable to prepare for or recover from a wildfire: their homes and livelihoods are at risk [14]. Most of them are located in California, which has more than 2 million households in “high or extreme” risk of wildfire damage [15]. It should also be noted that traditionally underserved communities are particularly vulnerable in this context. Studies show that lower-income households and short-term residents --including renters or seasonal occupants, are less likely to invest in fire mitigation activities on properties [16].

There have been some groups of citizens who have come together to support communities at risk of wildfires. One group called “Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire” works to help those living in the WUI [17]. They work as educated representatives for the public to ensure safe land use planning, hazard assessment, and capacity building in WUI and other at-risk communities.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has also established a group called Firewise USA [18]. Firewise USA is a national organization that has the goal of empowering and educating individuals and communities to decrease wildfire risk. They help individuals prepare and protect homes from wildfire risk. In addition, they educate people on what to expect from their townships and local representatives in the context of fire safety.

Politicians & Government GroupsEdit

Politicians and government systems are inherent participants in this case, as it involves the use and interaction between public and private lands and concerns the well-being of citizens. Their goals could be generalized as gaining the support of the public, as well as protecting them. These groups are not only tasked with fighting fires on the frontlines but also working to solve problems on a larger scale.

Political ResponsesEdit

There are disagreements about the wildfires’ causes, and they often reflect partisan ideology in America. President Donald Trump blamed the state of California’s poor forest management for the disaster while avoiding the cause of climate change, claiming that things will “just get cooler” if we “just watch” [19]. President-Elect Joe Biden immediately connected the wildfires to climate change, an issue his voter base cares deeply about.

Governor Gavin Newsom committed California to more aggressive carbon reduction targets, tasking his Environmental Protection Secretary and Natural resources Secretary to accelerate California’s climate change agenda across the board. Along with reductions in carbon, Governor Newsom and the US Forest Service chief signed a memorandum of understanding of the need to intentionally burn more forest in order to keep fires under control. However, this is not real legislation, and without drastic change, additional small-scale preventative burns will be only a drop in the ocean of what is necessary to prevent another mega-fire season [20].

Government AgenciesEdit

In 2008, the state set new fire-resistance requirement codes for all new homes or buildings in California [21]. Then, in March 2018, Congress passed a “Wildfire Funding Fix” which should give government agencies the funds necessary to accelerate their work and prioritize forest restoration efforts on an as-needed basis [22].

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire) is a fire department run by the California Natural Resources Agency. They are tasked with an array of responsibilities including fighting fires on the front lines as well as preventing wildfires. CAL Fire has implemented the “California Forest Stewardship Program” which encourages good stewardship of California’s private forestland [23]. They consult with land managers and public health agencies to develop smoke management plans and take necessary precautions to best protect nearby communities. CAL Fire is also responsible for, however, an increasingly large budget for fire suppression. They have been criticized for technology and not using it to its greatest effect, such as calling Boeing 747s to drop retardant, which only 30 percent of even falls within 2,000 yards of a neighborhood. Instead, the money could be used to set up more preventative burns to reduce flammable stockpile in the forests.


The 2020 Western Wildfire Season was the perfect storm of climate change, WUI encroachment, and a century of over-aggressive fire suppression that has led to the largest fire season ever recorded. New fire-resistance codes, more ambitious carbon reduction goals, sustainable population growth paired with careful urban planning, and massive expansion of preventative burns have all been hailed as part of the solution to enduring growing fire pains in the Western United States. This chapter is a model example of how solutionism (an overaggressive fire policy supported by increasing technological prowess) may cause unintended harms. It is also an example of the trade off between population expansion and environment protection. Further work must be made to extend the examination beyond the United States, and it may be interesting to look at how private firefighters are being used.


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  2. Lin, J., & Watson, A. (2020, June 24). California migration: The story of 40 million. CalMatters. https://calmatters.org/explainers/california-population-migration-census-demographics-immigration/.
  3. Wildland urban interface (WUI). U.S. Fire Administration. (2020, Oct. 30). https://www.usfa.fema.gov/wui/.
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  6. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. (Dec. 2020). Climate at a Glance: County Time Series. Dec. 9, 2020 https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/
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  8. Kolden, C. (2020, Sep. 17). This Is How We Know Climate Change is Making Wildfires Worse. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/wildfires-climate-change/2020/09/17/d590d9b8-f886-11ea-a275-1a2c2d36e1f1_story.html
  9. Kohn, Elias. (2018). Wildfire Litigation: Effects On Forest Management And Wildfire Emergency Response. Environmental Law, 48(3), 585-615.
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  11. CDP. (2020, Nov. 24). 2020 North American Wildfire Season. Center for Disaster Philanthropy. https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/2020-california-wildfires/
  12. BBC News. (2018, Nov. 12). In Pictures: The Animals Caught In California’s Wildfires. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46178230
  13. Penney, V. (2020, Sep. 24). It’s Not Just California. These Places Are Also on Fire. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/climate/wildfires-globally.html
  14. Richards, R. (2019, July 25). Before the Fire: Protecting Vulnerable Communities From Wildfire. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2019/07/25/472639/before-the-fire/
  15. Facts + Statistics: Wildfires. III. (2019). https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-wildfires.
  16. Socioeconomic Factors and the Incidence of Fire. FEMA. https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/socio.pdf.
  17. What We Do. Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire. (2020, Dec. 4). https://cpaw.headwaterseconomics.org/what-we-do/.
  18. Firewise USA®. NFPA. https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Wildfire/Firewise-USA.
  19. Keith, Tamara. (2020, Sep. 14). Trump Blames Wildfires On Poor Forest Management. Biden Focuses On Climate Change. NPR.
  20. Weil, Elizabeth. (2020, Aug. 28). They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?. ProPublica.
  21. Kasler, D., & Reese, P. (2019, April 11). 'The weakest link': Why your house may burn while your neighbor's survives the next wildfire. sacbee. https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/fires/article227665284.html.
  22. Richards, R. (2019, June 13). Defining Success for the Wildfire Funding Fix. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2018/06/13/451901/defining-success-wildfire-funding-fix/.
  23. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). Forest Stewardship. https://www.fire.ca.gov/programs/resource-management/resource-protection-improvement/landowner-assistance/forest-stewardship/.