A wildfire in California’s tourist hotspot Big Sur demonstrates how the effects of climate change can lead to an array of immediate dangers and exacerbate existing issues.
Currently burning 40,000 acres across several towns and state parks in the Big Sur area, the Soberanes Fire has been active since July 22. Although wildfires are fairly common in California’s Central Coast, the extreme dryness caused by the state’s historical 5 year drought coupled with unusually low humidity have contributed to the fire’s size and strength. While the drought is rooted in normal weather patterns, the effects of climate change have worsened it. As the region warms, water held in the soil and plants evaporates more quickly than before, keeping the area dry. The lack of water on the ground along with the dearth of rain resulting from the drought have contributed to the ongoing arid conditions. In addition to creating the environment that allows fires to rage, the drought also hinders firefighters because they have less water at their disposal for extinguishing purposes.
The Big Sur area is comprised of hundreds of thousands of acres of land, much of which is covered in chaparral, an extensive ecosystem of woody shrubs. It has become especially vulnerable during the drought, essentially covering the region in kindling. The resulting tinder box, along with the lack of water available to firefighters and difficult terrain have impeded the 5,400 personnel on the scene from putting the fire out.
Apart from consuming the state parks, the fire has had long-term effects on the local population. Physically, it has destroyed over 50 houses, forced hundreds of residents to evacuate and created health issues for the population 100 miles away in the Bay Area. The fire resulted in one fatality, when an onsite bulldozer operator died fighting it.
The tourism-dependent local economy has also been acutely affected. Tourists were deterred from visiting the area after fire officials announced the closure of several popular parks and the smoke began to sweep into more populated areas, and local business owners report a 50% drop in business. Businesses in the area make the majority of their money in the latter part of the summer, so this decline can have severe consequences for their financial security.
As climate change worsens and the drought continues to afflict California, wildfires will become more common and their effects more severe. Climate change is a global phenomenon, so understanding the extent to which it threatens drought-prone areas will be necessary to survival. Making the public aware and properly preparing for these effects will become increasingly important.