High School High School Society and the World High School Space and Planetary Sciences TSS

What California Wildfires Indicate about Global Climate Change

Explore an in-depth review on the current wildfire status and new developments relating to climate change.

The past year, California has had constant media coverage over the exponential amount of wildfires occurring all across the state. In fact, the focus on wildfires makes it seem as though the wildfires are uncontainable, unstoppable, and inescapable. The reality of the situation is not far from the terror depicted in news clips and images. What is even worse, the correlation of this natural disaster and climate change has introduced the idea that human-made pollution could be a factor in the devasting impact wildfires have both emotionally and physically.

A Brief History of the Wildfires in the United States

Wildfires were not always cast in a negative light. Going back to the Neolithic Revolution and the onset of agriculture, starting fires in the woodlands was a way to create sustainable farmland by flattening and fertilizing the area. This phenomenon, termed slash and burn agriculture, persists in today’s society as a way to revitalize land.

However, this method often created many dangers; especially due to the proximity in which humans interact with wildfires. The profound impact of this method on the human race has been recorded in detail. For example, one of the largest wildfires ever recorded was the Great Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin in 1871. Reverend Peter Pernin was an eyewitness and recounted the immense damage including over 700 lives lost and almost $200,000,000 in property damage.

While there have been occasional wildfires in states like Minnesota, South Carolina, and Colorado, the majority of the fires are located on the West Coast, including Oregon, Washington, and most notably, California. In the past decade, there have been over thirty major wildfires in California, ranging from 90,000 acres to over 300,000 acres. Needless to say, the mammoth size of these wildfires make living conditions incredibly dangerous for residents and creates a need to find the source of the issue in order to approach containing fires.

What’s Up with California Right Now?

Currently, California is under immense pressure as three massive fires are destroying thousands of residents’ homes and livelihoods. One of the three, Mendocino, is the largest fire to be recorded, affecting 305,489 acres with a slim chance of improving in the near future. To pile on top of that, the second fire, Carr, is ranked ninth on the most destructive fires. Lastly, the Ferguson fire, affecting 94,885 acres, has been going for a month and is only 79% contained. Its location near the Yosemite National Park creates danger for visiting tourists and local wildlife populations.

The combination of the high population density, the recent drought, and fuel-driving vegetation makes California incredibly susceptible to the onslaught of massive wildfires. The overall trend in wildfires is slowly increasing; 2017 saw the tail-end increase, whereas the 2018 trend is looking to bring a second largest fire to the table, as shown in the graph below.

Source: NY Times

Correlation Between Wildfires and Global Warming

Because of the recent increase of wildfires, especially in California, many questions are being raised on whether forest fires can be connected to or caused by global warming. The short answer is, we don’t know. While it certainly can serve as a plausible explanation, there has not been enough research studies on the topic. The long answer is that there are factors likely to have been caused by climate change that have led to an increased risk for forest fires. For example, the recent drought in California was intensified 15-20% because of global warming. Given the extremely dry conditions, as well as unfortunate heat cycling in California, wildfires are likely to ensue and become uncontrollable. Therefore, based on evidence of past events, it seems reasonable that global warming and climate change certainly have an impact on wildfires. However, more research is necessary to solidify this assumption.

The increased amount of natural disasters, like these wildfires, can also complicate the systems of the world ecology. Not only do forest fires impact the lives of the victims, it also can contribute to serious environmental damage. The estimated carbon emissions of a wildfire totals around 3% of the world’s emissions. However, the statistics regarding the wildfire containment show that such a decrease can decrease emissions anywhere from 38-77%. Because carbon emissions are a key role in the greenhouse effect and correlated global warming, it crucial that a way to reduce and contain serious wildfires is developed and implemented quickly.


  1. https://www.forestfoundation.org/wildfires-and-climate-change
  2. https://www.livescience.com/7872-faq-science-history-wildfires.html
  3. http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/WIReader/WER2002-0.html
  4. https://www.nps.gov/fire/wildland-fire/learning-center/fireside-chats/history-timeline.cfm
  5. https://www.c2es.org/content/wildfires-and-climate-change/
  6. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/7/17661096/california-wildfires-2018-mendocino-carr-ferguson-climate

Cover Photo:



My name is Michelle Mai and I am a rising senior at Century High School. My passion in the various STEM fields, most notably being science research, has driven me to be a sixth-year participant in the regional, state science fairs, and the 2018 Intel ISEF conference this past May. While science fair and research projects are large parts of my scientific career thus far, I also am the president of my high school's STEM Society, a volunteer at the Mayo Clinic, and the founder of the Run for Ronald community fundraiser. In the near future, I hope to pursue a career in medicine and medical-related research to explore the exciting discoveries in the medical field for the improvement of the human quality of life.

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