With Labor Day right around the corner, many people are gearing up for a weekend spent in the great outdoors. Camping is many people’s annual go-to for this holiday; however, things may be different this year. While we have already been facing a global pandemic that has brought about various challenges and changes to our daily lives, there is a more recent issue that may affect how we celebrate Labor Day in 2020 – the recent California wildfires.
California is somewhat notorious for its wildfires. There are three main reasons that this is the case – fuel, weather, and topography. This sunny state is home to brushy hillsides and is prone to drought, making it especially susceptible to wildfires. Recently, the heatwave that has impacted much of North America added extra fuel to the fire, per se. Due to California’s dry climate, heatwaves only cause wildfires to spread faster than in average conditions. The high ground temperatures also contribute to lightning storms, which are believed to be the root of these more recent California fires. The combination of these conditions brought about an enormous wave of fires that most local farmers were not prepared for, especially since the typical California fire season is later in the fall – typically falling in September and through November, rather than August (1).
These fires have a significant impact on local California farmers and farm workers. Throughout the pandemic, local farmworkers have been deemed “essential workers,” meaning they have already been putting their lives at risk to ensure our stores are stocked with food. The wildfires, however, have put them at an even greater risk. Many have had to work in grueling conditions throughout the heatwave, bringing working temperatures to up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit; and putting workers at risk of breathing in toxic compounds from the smoke the fires have emitted (2). What’s more, these conditions have hit on the racial disparities among the working class in the US – with a significant number of farmworkers consisting of people in marginalized communities (3). Although these workers’ conditions are hazardous and even life-threatening, workers are left with no other choice but to continue. This is because they need to work in order to provide for themselves and their families.
What’s more, the fires have put many farmworkers in dangerous scenarios – such as evacuating livestock and community members from their homes with wildfires practically on their doorsteps. With the resources set aside for firefighters spread thin at times such as these, many farmers are forced to protect their land with only the resources they have available to them on location. For smaller indigenous farmers, the wildfires have become almost impossible to fight on their own, because they tend to live in more remote locations. These remote areas depend on volunteer firefighters for protection. However, these volunteer organizations have been notoriously defunded over the past few years (4). However, even the farmers in regions with fully funded firefighters have struggled due to the wildfires – many losing everything.
Along with the farmers and farmworkers, our food supplies will be impacted by the recent fires as well. California is one of the nation's most significant agriculture states – responsible for roughly 90% of all nuts, vegetables, and fruits supplies to the US (5). We lose local produce directly when farms are affected by the fires. This leaves individuals that rely on locally grown food without food supplies, and it also means there are fewer ingredients for the producers that rely on local suppliers to make their own products. This can lead to a kind of domino effect, causing a rise in food prices. When many are already financially insecure during a pandemic, this may only worsen food security issues on the west coast.
Another problem the fires will cause within our food systems are issues in future food production. Toxic compounds in the smoke caused by wildfires can be carried over one hundred miles away from the source – and these compounds can directly impact plant growth in the regions that they fall in (6). This can cause bioaccumulation of hazardous compounds within food growing in those areas. Additionally, ash that coats farmland seeps into topsoil, making it harder for rainfall to penetrate the Earth (7). This makes it even harder for the land to recover from the fires and support new plant growth in the following years. After losing significant amounts of growing crops to these fires, the additional loss of future food production could create food scarcity and a loss of jobs for many of the workers who help grow and harvest on such farms.
Although we as individuals have little control over how fires spread, we can help prevent them from starting in the first place. In fact, - roughly 80% of wildfires are caused by human actions, unlike the recent fires caused by natural forces (8). With Labor Day right around the corner, it is imperative to understand your role as a camper in preventing wildfires. Reading the rules established at your campground is a great place to start because each natural location is unique and has specific needs that must be catered to by its visitors. If you choose to light a campfire, ensure that you enclose it safely in a ring that prevents it from spreading and never leave the campfire unattended. Once you are finished with the fire, be sure to extinguish it fully. And finally, when you leave your campsite to return home, be sure to bring any waste with you – especially materials that are highly flammable like gasoline and other chemicals. By adhering to these fire-safety protocols, you are not only protecting your campsite but potentially the health of an entire ecosystem.