There’s little doubt among scientific-minded people that man-made climate change is largely responsible for the recent increase in wildfires in the United States. Extreme weather conditions are on the rise—large swaths of land are hotter and drier today than they’ve ever been, and this means that when fires start, they spread faster than ever. All of this is true, but it skates around a key question: what can be done to keep those fires from starting in the first place?
The New York Times recently conducted a deep dive into this issue, using the recent wildfires in California as a case study. The Times found out that almost 95 percent of fires statewide are started by people—and of those, only about 7 percent are arson cases. That means the vast majority of fires begin with people making mistakes, and those mistakes might be preventable in the future.
“They talk about climate change,” said Steve Campora, a Sacramento lawyer who often advocates for fire victims. “And climate change makes it more difficult to control the fire. But climate change does not cause ignition.”
Especially this year, as wildfires in California have increased significantly, investigators have been digging deep and looking to find root causes. In one case, they discovered that a major fire began with a spark from a flat tire. Another originated when a person hammered in a fence post in an area surrounded by dry vegetation. For the most part, fires are being caused by small, seemingly innocuous human actions at first, then spreading later.
People focus on climate change when it comes to preventing wildfires, and that’s good: they should indeed do so. But that can’t be the only solution. More awareness of fire safety concepts in general is also a crucial aspect here.
Edward Struzik of the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy concurs. He told the Times that unless people take concrete steps to be smarter about fire safety and the underlying causes behind these blazes, the problem is likely to keep getting worse in future years.
“There is no end in sight for this fire activity,” Struzik said. “Education is still a really big problem. There are many people who are oblivious to the dangers and volatility of forests.”