California’s 2018 Wildfires Have Emitted A Year’s Worth of Power Pollution

The Camp Fire on November 8, 2018, located 90 miles north of Sacramento, California.

The Camp Fire on November 8, 2018, located 90 miles north of Sacramento, California. NASA

California’s record-breaking 2018 wildfire season has released emissions equivalent to about 68 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – equal to the emissions produced from generating one year’s worth of electricity in the state, or about 15 percent of California’s total annual emissions, according to a new statement by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Camp and Woolsey fires alone produced emissions equivalent to about 5.5 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to a preliminary analysis conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), upon which the DOI statement is based.

“We know that wildfires can be deadly and cost billions of dollars, but this analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey also shows just how bad catastrophic fires are for the environment and for the public’s health,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in the statement.

Zinke attributed the “intensity and range” of the fires to improper forest management, and stated that forest management techniques such as prescribed burns and mechanical thinning would improve forest health and reduce wildfire risks in the future. Although forest management is an important component of wildfire prevention, scientists say that higher temperatures linked to climate change are playing a major role in making the fires increasingly deadly and difficult to fight.

“We’ve been lengthening fire season by shortening the precipitation season, and we’re warming throughout,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained to National Geographic. “That’s essentially what’s enabled these recent fires to be so destructive, at times of the year when you wouldn’t really expect them.”

California Governor Jerry Brown has called the state’s fires “the new abnormal,” declaring that investment in fire prevention and climate change adaptation will be necessary to address the intensifying wildfire threats in the coming years.

—Elisheva Mittelman