UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

I Visited California’s Biggest Wildfires and This is What I Learned

Written by Cassidy Childs, UNA-NCA Research Assistant and Advocacy Fellow. Special thanks to Alex Pagels, Cyndy and John Haskey, Natividad Jose Pompa, Holly Nakagawa, Venus and Max Childs for making this trip possible.


Like the flip of a switch, my life and so many others changed forever in mere hours. In the fall of 2017, the Tubbs fire ripped through my hometown of Santa Rosa overnight. At the time, it was California’s most destructive wildfire, burning 5,643 structures and taking 22 lives. In the years that followed, the California fires only got worse and were always too close to home. This year, I found myself in a 60,000 person evacuation with the Glass fire roaring towards us on the mountain ridge. My experience with the Glass fire felt like a turning point and a ‘call to adventure’ to seek a deeper understanding of our changing environment. And so in January, I took a road trip around the state of California, visiting some of the largest and most destructive fire scars in the state. In this article, I will be covering the 2017 Tubbs fire, the 2020 Glass fire, the SCU Complex fire, the CZU Complex fire, the 2017 Thomas fire, the 2018 Woolsey fire, the 2019 Saddleridge fire, the 2020 Creek fire, the 2018 Camp fire, and the 2020 North Complex fire.

Wildfires in Napa and Sonoma County

The purpose of my wildfire journey was to explore the complexity of wildfires and the way social systems can foster recovery and resilience. The discourse around these wildfires are often uninformed, politically-motivated, and overly generalized. Statements such as, “Fire is native to California ecosystems” and “Climate change is driving the California wildfires” are partially true, but do not tell the full story. Through my journey, I hope that I can illuminate the complexities of ecosystems, explain how wildfires are both natural and social disasters, and provide some recommendations to make our communities safer and more resilient.

The Basics of Wildfires

In order to have a nuanced conversation about the California wildfires, the basic mechanics and terminology of wildfires must be established. Understanding these concepts is crucial for recognizing how and why the wildfires happened the way that they did.

First, wildfires have different severity levels. Fires where there is mostly ground and surface burning are referred to as low to medium severity fires. Fires where there is crown burning, burning in the top canopy of trees, are referred to high severity fires. High severity fires are often associated with negative health effects of forests, because crown fires often kill larger trees. Low to medium severity fires are often better for forest health, because they maintain forest density by killing unhealthy or smaller trees and increasing nutrient recycling. Fires in which larger trees die create longer time periods for full forest recovery. California ecosystems are much more resilient to low to medium fire severity, rather than the high severity fires that are becoming more common today.

Fire Severity Chart

There is a strong connection between drought, climate change, and wildfires in California. Climate change has intensified California droughts by 15–20%, and the likelihood of droughts in California has doubled in the last century. The 2012 California drought drove an increase in tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada, killing an estimated 100 million trees. In the long-term, the rate of tree mortality and the subsequent availability of highly combustible wood will drive more large, high-severity fires. Furthermore, droughts create ideal fire conditions with low humidity and low rainfall. Scientists estimate that the 1.4 °C warming trend in California has increased wildfires by 500%.

Another driver of wildfires has been the US forest management policy of fire suppression. Prior to US forest management, indigenous peoples regularly burned California forests as a means of management. The fires had ecological benefits — thinning forests, maintaining grasslands, increasing nutrient recycling, and preventing invasive species. However, early US forest management stripped indigenous peoples of their rights to burn their land and associated forest conservation with fire suppression. In 1935, forest management had a ‘10 a.m.’ policy that they should have a fire fully contained by the next morning it started. As a result, the density of forests in California has increased about 80–600% in the last 150 years. The increased density of forest provides more biomass fuels for fires, increasing the likelihood of high severity fires and canopy burning. In order to create more resilient forests and restore grasslands, prescribed low-medium burning is necessary. Grassland restoration is key to maintaining a more resilient environment for wildfires and droughts. Grasslands are home to native species, drought resistant, and require regular fire intervals of 30 years.

Lastly, the most deadly and dangerous aspect of wildfires is not necessarily the fire itself, but rather the post-fire flooding and debris flow potential. Wildfires burn grasses and trees that are responsible for soil stability on hills and mountains. Without the root integrity and a lack of regrowth before the first storm season, heavy rains increase the likelihood of floods and debris flows. These debris flows are incredibly dangerous because they happen incredibly fast and often overwhelm low lying areas where residential developments are located. After wildfires, officials produce debris flow potential maps outlining the risks of certain areas, calculated using topography, rainfall rate, and fire severity.

The Wildfires

The 2017 Tubbs and 2020 Glass fires

My journey through California wildfires begins in my hometown of Santa Rosa, California. In 2017, I witnessed the devastation of the Tubbs fire and how it left my community reeling from the damages and loss. In 2020, I saw the Glass fire burn along the forest areas that the Tubbs fire had missed. Both fires were devastating in terms of property damage; the Tubbs fire burned 5,636 structures and the Glass fire burned 1,555 structures. However, while 22 people died in the Tubbs fire, there were no reported injuries or deaths in the Glass fire. Santa Rosa, and more broadly Sonoma and Napa County, had learned a life-saving lesson.

The concept of social learning, where society adapts to a threat at all levels, is integral to the study of community resilience. For the Glass fire, Sonoma County had developed more emergency response systems. People were notified of the fire immediately via text message and calls. The county sent city buses targeting isolated elderly populations. Due to personal experience, people had already packed go-bags and planned where they would evacuate to. They had developed stronger bonds with their neighbors and knocked on each other’s doors. And lastly, there was more of a perception of fire risk. Before the Tubbs fire, a large fire in Santa Rosa had not happened in decades. Before the Glass fire, fires dotted the previous months and years, and people had already evacuated several times in the years prior.

It has been nearly four years since the Tubbs fire, and recovery is still ongoing. Coffey Park and Fountain Grove are still rebuilding. The deadline to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has passed. Some people are choosing not to rebuild, deeming the risk of repeated wildfires too great. With California’s rainfall only 60% average at this point in the rainy season, people in Santa Rosa fear for a worse fire season in the fall of 2021. And so the fires will continue to have a large and fresh spot in Santa Rosa’s collective memory.

The 2020 SCU Lightning Complex fire

We drove the winding roads toward the SCU burn scar, ascending above the San Jose haze. We passed Caltrans crews cleaning up the fire damage, replacing fences, and removing dead trees. Finally, we reached the white Lick Observatory at the top of Mt. Hamilton, standing in deep contrast to the black valley below.

The SCU Lightning Complex fire started on August 18th, 2020 , and is one of hundreds of fires that started due to a lightning storm. Of the sites that I visited, the SCU Complex, the CZU Complex, and the North Complex were started during the lightning storm. The SCU Complex burned 396,624 acres and is the 3rd largest fire in California history. The fire destroyed 222 structures and partially damaged 26 structures. The fire burned through five counties: Alameda County, Santa Clara County, Contra Costa County, San Joaquin County, and Merced County.

While we were there, we noticed that grasses had already begun to bounce back and the landscape looked like it would rejuvenate quickly. According to ecologist Hugh Safford, the SCU Lightning Complex will be beneficial for the Henry Coe State Park and the Mount Diablo foothills. The fire cleared out the excess underbrush that has accumulated after years of fire suppression and the grasslands will bounce back quickly with rain. Fires can be harmful to chaparral biomes if they occur at a rate of 30 years or less, however much of the SCU burn scar had not burned in the last 120 years. The topography of the foothills contributed to the fire spread, because fires burn hotter and faster on inclines. Oak trees and gray pine trees died at the hot spots where the fire travelled up the canopies of highly flammable gray pines and into tree canopies.

2020 SCU Lightning Complex Fire Severity, Burn Scar Map, and Debris Flow Map

The SCU Complex fire demonstrates the duality of fire and how it can be beneficial for natural environments. With low property damage and no reported deaths, the fire will rejuvenate the parks that it burned through.

The 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fire

In stark contrast to SCU Complex fire, the CZU Lightning Complex fire was a far more destructive and higher intensity fire. After visiting the SCU Complex fires, we drove to the CZU Complex fires where we met Cyndy and John Hasky at their lost property. Their home had burned down during the fire and they were gracious enough to tell their story. They described the pain of finding out that their property had burned through news coverage, their rush to evacuate, and the moments of hurt when they remember sentimental objects that cannot be replaced. With their permission, we photographed the parts of their property they were comfortable with. As we drove away to photograph the Great Basin Redwoods, I looked back to see them continue to sift through the ash of their former home.

In contrast to the SCU Lightning Complex fire, the CZU Lightning Complex fire was much more severe in terms of ecological and property damage, as seen in the fire severity maps comparing the two fires above. While driving toward Big Basin Park, we started to see more and more support signs for the survivors of the fire, with hashtags such as #santacruzstrong. In total, the CZU Complex fire burned 1,490 structures and 86,509 acres and there was 1 reported fatality.

After initial fears that Big Basin Redwoods State Park was destroyed, experts have confirmed that most of its oldest trees survived the fire. Low and medium severity fires are common in redwood forests and scientists often use the fire scars and damage in the rings of the trunks to track fire histories. However, the CZU Complex fire had such an unprecedented high intensity, there is uncertainty to how many large trees survived. The fire continues to burn 6 months after it started and may linger for many more months or years. According to experts, it will take years for full canopies to recover, but they expect the forest to make a full recovery in the coming decades.

The fire damage can cause other ecological issues, such as debris flows and water pollution. Because 20% of the San Lorenzo River Watershed burned and the San Lorenzo River supplies half of the drinking water to Santa Cruz, toxic leakage and pollution from manmade structures is highly likely. Water managers insisted that they are taking safety precautions; however officials have underestimated the effect of water contamination before, such as when hazardous levels of benzene were found in drinking water after the Camp and Tubbs fires.

Ultimately, the CZU Complex fires demonstrate how destructive fires can be for both the natural and human-made built environment. From the possibility of the death of large forests to the tainting of drinking water, high-intensity fires are becoming more common and posing safety problems.

The 2017 Thomas fire

The Thomas fire burned in December 2017 and was the largest California wildfire in history at the time. The Thomas fire burned 281,893 acres and destroyed 1,063 structures. The fire directly killed 1 civilian and 1 firefighter, and the subsequent debris flows killed 21 people. Due to its scale, we decided to check out three areas that were burned in the Thomas fire. We visited the areas in Montecito that had been devastated by debris flows, the wildlife areas by Ojai, and the residential damage in Ventura.

As residents in the high lying areas of the Santa Barbara hills had been evacuated, those who died in Montecito were located in low-lying areas that had not been evacuated and were quickly overwhelmed by the mudslides. When we visited the sites where the debris flows, I was astounded by the tonnage of rocks and mud that had overwhelmed and cleared the creek that it flowed down. There were massive boulders in and around the creek bed that still had yet to be cleared. The destroyed house lots had been cleared and some had begun rebuilding.

The residential damages in Ventura occurred in the high elevation areas on dry and grassy hills. There were a variety of levels of recovery, from empty lots to construction to newly built lots for sale. In general, where fires had recently occurred and caused damage, there were a lot of ‘for sale’ signs. People were either reluctant to move or reluctant to stay in high-risk fire areas. The prevalence of California wildfires highlights the internal displacement occurring and links it to the broader global issue of climate refugees.

2017 Thomas fire Burn Scar Map and Debris Flow Map

The chaparral landscape of Ojai had already recovered from the 2017 fire. I could not tell that a fire had occurred there, except for some black bark and the remains of burned fences. It was a beautiful day and drive, and the ecology had clearly benefited from the fire.

The 2018 Woolsey fire

When we were driving through the Woolsey fire scar, we quickly noticed that the wildlife areas had bounced back quite quickly. The grasses had grown back, and the only notable traces of fire were burned tree trunks and charred fences. Many of the houses that had burned in the Santa Monica Mountains were protected by fences and not visible from the street. The majority of homes were well into the process of being rebuilt, and very few lots had yet to be cleared.

The Woolsey fire burned 96,949 acres, destroyed 1,643 structures, and there were 3 reported casualties. Many of the homes that burned were owned by celebrities, which added to the press around the fire. Celebrities such as Miley Cyrus donated money to recovery funds and used their platforms to boost individual donations.

According to a report released after the containment of the Woolsey fire, government mismanagement of resources caused the loss of additional houses. Celebrities and government officials asked for special checks on their properties, diverting resources and firefighters from where they were needed most. The LA County Board of Supervisors removed LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva from head of county emergency operations due to the findings of this report.

2018 Woolsey Fire Burn Scar Map

The Woolsey fire reveals a debate at the heart of ethics in natural disasters. When Kim Kardashian revealed that she had hired private firefighters to save her home, many were outraged. Those who disagree with private firefighters argue for the principle of equal access and fairness. Others argue that with the overall shortage of firefighters in California, private firefighters can be a common good for the neighborhood. The UN Human Rights Council utilizes the term ‘climate apartheid’ to represent that the rich will be able to pay to avoid climate change consequences and the poor will perish as a consequence of climate change.

The 2019 Saddleridge fire

As we approached the Saddleridge fire scar, I noticed how rocky, dry, and hot the terrain was despite it being January. The Saddleridge fire burned 8,799 acres, destroyed 19 structures and resulted in 1 reported casualty.

Climate change is not the only driver for why California’s have become more destructive.

Suburban sprawl has increased alongside housing prices in bigger California cities. The wildland-urban interface (WUI) is the area where wilderness and houses coexist, and the WUI in the US grew 41% from 1990 to 2010. Additionally, 60% of new houses are being built on WUI land.

While houses in WUI are more likely to burn, developers are incentivized not to warn or downplay the wildfire risks of the area to prospective buyers. One of the key tenets of resilience is risk perception. In the case of the Saddleridge fire, the fire-prone terrain adds extra risks to the communities that live near it.

The 2020 Creek fire

The scale of the Creek fire can not be understated. As we drove up the long ascent toward Shaver Lake and the Sierra National Forest, the trees began to blacken and when we crested the peak, we stared at an endless dark valley below. The white snow was in deep contrast with the blackened soil and trees.

The Creek fire burned from September 4th to December 24th, burning 379,895 acres and destroying 856 homes. The fire also required the airlift rescue of hundreds of people who were camping near the Mammoth Pool Reservoir. Eventually, the Creek fire formed its own pyrocumulonimbus cloud, fueling the fire with more oxygen.

One town in the middle of the Creek fire did not burn down. Shaver Lake Village was a rare pocket in the Creek fire that was saved. The main theory as to why it did not burn down was the decades of prescribed burning, started by retired natural resource manager John Mount and continued by Steve Byrd. The prescribed burning saved Shaver Lake by creating defensible wildlife areas where the fire could be slowed and contained.

According to Valley Children’s Hospital, there has been a spike in respiratory problems for young children in Madera County. Pediatric Pulmonologist Dr. Lauro Roberto says that the spike in young patients may be linked to harmful pollutants in the air from the Creek fire in addition to the already poor air quality in the Central Valley.

2020 Creek fire Burn Scar Map

The ecological damage from the Creek fire has yet to be measured and evaluated. Key drivers of the Creek fire include the 140 million dead trees from the California drought and 36.1 million dead trees from bark beetle infestations. The fire fueled itself from the increased tree mortality, resulting in the death of more large trees in the Sierra National Forest.

The 2018 Camp fire

The Camp Fire was the most destructive and deadly fire in California’s history. The fire killed 85 civilians, destroyed more than 18,000 structures, and burned for 153,336 acres. During the fires, people fled to neighboring cities such as Chico, only to hear days later they lost everything. Driving into Paradise, California, the lasting effects of the devastation were still very clear. The town no longer existed in a forest.

The sparse, surviving trees were tall and skinny; only now are their branches beginning to rejuvenate on the trunks. Their canopies will take years to recover. More than 80,000 dead or hazardous trees still need to be cleared. Patios with chairs are set up for restaurants that no longer exist. There are entire streets with empty lots, and other streets where houses are being rebuilt. The population of Paradise dropped from 26,000 to about 3,000 after the fire. And yet the town was still quietly bustling and busy in the middle of a weekday. Crews were mostly done clearing lots, and now they were beginning rebuilding businesses and homes. The town will use its $252 million dollar settlement from PG&E to slowly recover.

We visited Jose Pompa, a family friend, where his house once stood. He cleared the lot and most of the trees, but was unable to sell his land because it was ensnared in the PG&E settlement. There were cement steps to a no longer existing porch and a few dead trees that needed to be cleared, but not much else was left. He, like many others, will probably not return to Paradise.

2018 Camp fire Burn Scar Map

The 2020 North Complex fire

The North Complex fire stands as a testament that the Camp fire was not a mere coincidence or fluke. The North Complex fire burned for 318,935 acres, destroyed 2,455 structures and had 16 reported fatalities. The North Complex fire was also the face of the 2020 California wildfires when the photo of the bridge on the burning hillside against an orange sky made headlines.

The North Complex fire burned down the entirety of Berry Creek, a small town nestled in the forest. Cal Fire used the burn scar from the Camp fire to contain the North Complex fire. Without much biomass fuel, the North Complex fire could not spread on the western front, where it met the fire scar from the Camp fire.

With both the loss of Berry Creek and Paradise, Californians are asking if towns should be built in the middle of the dry Sierra Nevada forests. For me, the answer is larger than just the towns in forests, but extends to all developments in the wildland-urban interface. Many of the structures that burned during my trip throughout California resided on the edge of high-risk areas. Towns like Berry Creek and Paradise can exist if they take aggressive preventative measures and clearly communicate risk and emergency procedures. Towns like Shaver Lake, that also sit in the middle of forests, prove that it is possible to manage high-severity wildfire risks for decades with prescribed burning. The future of development should focus on high density in cities and prohibit suburban sprawl in areas where residents are at risk.

Toward a More Resilient Future

While the wildfires in California have been getting increasingly worse, there are ways we can protect our communities and make them more resilient to fire. For forest management, we can increase prescribed burning and invest in more resources for land management and research for ecology. By increasing medium to low burns, the underbrush and excess fuel can be eliminated, which will prevent high severity fires. Additionally, we must recognize that California fire suppression has a colonial past and that indigenous people not only know how to best land manage, but are often the best custodians of the land.

In terms of policy, the government can help recovery by fortifying FEMA and increasing social welfare networks for natural disasters. Additionally, more action needs to be taken to mitigate climate change. Mitigation is more socially just than adaptation, because not all populations can afford to adapt to climate change. Supporting legislation that lowers greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to protecting California’s communities and forests. Communities can also learn from previous disasters by creating the networks needed for emergency situations and spreading awareness of these systems. Local governments can prevent losses to wildfires by preventing development in areas susceptible to fire and isolated from emergency services.

From my observation of each fire, these are the ways that we can protect communities and maintain our environment. And so I returned home after seeing a world of loss, pain, strength and optimism. During my journey, I learned to understand the nuance of each fire, an entire ecosystem of factors and consequences. But my biggest lesson was the human spirit’s will to persevere, much like the redwoods in Big Basin Park and the grasses in Ojai that began anew and overcame fields of ash.



UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to communications@unanca.org.

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