California wildfires are an increasing, preventable tragedy

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Sudden wildfire is like a glimpse into hell. Almost instantly, a once idyllic Californian landscape can be transformed into an inferno of blackened palm trees and burnt-out buildings.

At any moment, thousands of people are at risk of this suddenly becoming their reality.

Across the state, 17 scattered wildfires swept up California in a whirlwind of turmoil last week, with many firefighters risking their lives to contain them as thousands of people struggled with evacuation.

Sudden wildfire is like a glimpse into hell. Almost instantly, a once idyllic Californian landscape can be transformed into an inferno of blackened palm trees and burnt-out buildings.

At any moment, thousands of people are at risk of this suddenly becoming their reality.

Across the state, 17 scattered wildfires swept up California in a whirlwind of turmoil last week, with many firefighters risking their lives to contain them as thousands of people struggled with evacuation.

But it does not have to be so. Strategies to prevent fires and the technologies to fight them are always improving, and it may be possible to effectively eliminate the threat of wildfires.

Addressing this challenge takes a shift in perspective and a willingness to adapt.

For more than 40,000 years, the native Aboriginal people of Australia have used fire as an effective tool.

Sparking wildfires made hunting and cooking easier. Journeys were made faster and safer by clearing swathes of thorny vegetation and fertilizing the soil for cultivation.

But more importantly, the Australian Aborigines discovered that setting fires sooner in the year than they would appear naturally helped to mitigate much of the destruction.

Although firefighters utilize controlled burns to fight back against some fires, it may be beneficial to explore controlling wildfires by intentionally sparking them when weather and environmental conditions will hinder the blaze. Despite how people may feel about them, wildfires are a natural and necessary part of nature.

Much like the Black Death that terrorized peasants and nobles alike in Medieval Europe, wildfires are a plague that affect all Californians. But unlike those 14th century folks who attributed their suffering to supernatural agents, contemporary experts take data from each blaze to help fight the next.

But do firefighting services receive enough resources to combat wildfires?

In 2017, Cal Fire spent $700 million, far exceeding the approximately $426 million the agency had budgeted for fire suppression, and $2.35 billion was spent on fire suppression by the federal government. The 2017 wildfires resulted in over $13 billion dollars in damages and took the lives of 43 people, including two firefighters.

But wildfires are more than death tolls and billions of dollars in damages. In destroying homes, they forever change lives.

The huge amount of suffering wildfires cause justifies taking extreme measures in order to protect people and their property. Firefighters are doing the best they can with the resources they are given, but maps of various wildfires the since the 1970s have shown that the fires are getting worse and more numerous. If firefighters are going to win the war on wildfires, they are going to need something different to gain the upper hand.

New technologies, like the sound-based fire extinguisher invented by two engineering students from George Mason University in Virginia, will certainly play a role in the future of firefighting, but there are subtle ways to take an active step against fighting fires besides reacting to them when it might be too late to stop them from wreaking havoc.

A flat tire that sparked the Carr fire on July 23 led to the sixth-most destructive fire in California history. More buffer zones between roads and dry brush areas might help prevent these accidental disasters.

Even changes like reducing the number of palm trees (which provide less shade and require more water than typical hardwood trees) or Eucalyptus trees (which are extremely flammable) can help create an environment less susceptible to wildfires.

Detailed maps and predictive models that stitch together information about the various environmental conditions that contribute to making fire season dangerous can show where the most problematic areas are located.

Drones with firefighting capabilities are already in the works, and it may be simpler in the near future to keep ever-vigilant robots on the ready in at-risk areas that can respond to nearby fires faster than a fleet of firefighters can assemble.

California firefighters are doing an excellent job with the resources they have, but intelligent investments can help reduce societies reliance on firefighters and make their job safer.

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