Counting the cost of wildfires in California
Erickson considers the causes, and projected futures, of wildfires in the state of California, and the role that aerial firefighting resources can play in minimizing damage and mitigating risk
In 2019, California saw 4,292 fires that burned 56,000 acres. So far this year, that number has increased to 7,002 fires that have burned 1.4 million acres, 1.2 million of which were burning in the final week of August. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently declared a statewide emergency over the hundreds of fires burning in California, which opened the door for federal aid.
In addition to the 12,000 structures that have been damaged or destroyed in the 2020 California wildfire season, at least seven people have lost their lives. If that wasn’t troubling enough, in this past year, these fires have burned ecosystems where there aren’t typically wildfires, like the redwood and coniferous forests surrounding the Bay Area.
Cause and effect
The cause of this uptick in seasonal fires is threefold, and has been steadily increasing since the 1980s. The first major cause is California’s policy toward fire suppression, where fires are purposely lit on cooler months to burn away excess debris and dead wood. Because the number of ‘fire days’ in California is on the rise, these prescriptive burns aren’t happening fast enough or on the scale that is needed. Another issue that contributes to the increase in fire fuels is that more and more people are living in areas prone to burning. “With more people moving into fire-prone areas, the eruption of wildfire has contributed to a doubling of wildfire-related deaths and a 60-per-cent increase in wildfire-related property damage costs since 2008,” notes UC Berkeley forest ecologist and climate change scientist Patrick Gonzalez. 
In August, both the state and federal governments agreed to clean up one million acres by 2025, with practices such as prescribed burns. Part of that agreement also included a commitment to create a 20-year plan by next year to prioritize areas for forest-thinning. While this approach is proactive, experts warn that we will continue to see fires of this kind if we do not take significant measures against the third and most important cause of the increase in California wildfires: climate change. And, as many have noted, the effects will be costly.
Rising temperatures and rising costs
The true cost of preparing the state for wildfires will be billions and billions of dollars, likely over a period of decades, because as forests regrow, they demand continued maintenance or they will burn on their own.
California fires in 2019 cost more than $163 million to put out, and weather forecasting service AccuWeather says the economic damage wreaked by the blazes totaled $80 billion. Compare this to $400 billion spent in 2018 and $85 billion in 2017. 
Due to the unique challenges of California’s fire season, one method that fire departments are now increasingly relying on is aerial firefighting helitankers that can attack fires at night in strong Santa Ana winds, and manoeuvre safely in canyons and terrain from sea level to upwards of 10,000 feet in altitude while dropping water (or fire retardant) with tremendous precision and force. Even then, aerial pilots still have to contend with low visibility due to smoke and temperatures so high, they can “melt paint off of a fuselage.” 
Apart from climate change and prevention strategies, there is now increased demand for recruiting and training firefighting pilots for these missions, paid by subsidies. Additionally, a next-generation firefighting aircraft could be the short-term key to handling fire suppression while a long-term strategy of reversing climate change is being implemented.