The wildfires in Northern California have been devastating to homes and businesses in the area, leaving thousands with the task of rebuilding their lives. Amid all of that destruction of property are real environmental impacts to this beautiful area that can endure for years.
The unrelenting blaze that has scorched Napa, Sonoma, and other counties has destroyed or damaged more than 7,000 structures, displaced at least 100,000 people and killed at least 42 others. It’s burned up at least 200,000 acres of land overall.
Fire is a natural and important component in sustaining an ecosystem: it replenishes soil nutrients and clears away dead trees and other debris, according to the Sierra Club. In fact, according to National Geographic, California’s giant sequoias need a fire’s heat to regenerate. However, fires of the type that have hit Northern California could prove to be more than what an ecosystem requires.
Impact on the Human Environment
As the Northern California fires have quickly consumed homes, business, and other structures, in addition to wildlife habitats, and timber, they’ve released toxic smoke in the air that pollutes the environment. The fires eat up everything in their path and then through the smoke carry toxic chemicals for as many as hundreds or thousands of miles, all the while leaving an extraordinary amount of carbon in the atmosphere, according to National Geographic.
This toxic smoke has already caused air quality to plummet to dangerous levels in Northern California. For example, in Napa County, officials have called the air hazardous, distributing thousands of face masks for people to use to stay safe. The first week of the wildfires polluted the air as much as a year of cars, according to CNN.
In addition to toxic air, there’s also the debris and ash that covers charred neighborhoods. The ash is the aftermath of everything that was burned up, which includes anything in a home, including chemicals, plastic, and paint, all of which can be toxic to humans and animals, according to the New York Times.
“In whole neighborhoods here, a thick layer of ash paints the landscape a ghastly white,” the Times piece says. “Wind can whip the ash into the air; rain, when it comes, could wash it into watersheds and streams or onto nearby properties that were not ravaged by fire.”
To better understand what residents of Wine Country could face, let’s look at a 2007 study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey of a handful of wildfires that occurred in other regions of California. The study found some startling depths of pollution in burned-out residential areas: They contained elevated levels of arsenic, the metalloid antimony, and metals such as lead, copper, and chromium, and according to the Times, were present in levels that exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for reversing soil damage.
In Napa and surrounding areas, state and federal officials are working out a system for waste and debris removal that would first safely remove hazardous materials, like asbestos-laden fare, pipe insulation, and paints, batteries, flammable liquids and electronic waste, according to the Times. Contractors would follow that up with removal of the non-hazardous debris.
Officials advise that if residents do need to go into affected neighborhoods, that they wear proper safety gear like masks and gloves, along with long pants and shirts so as to avoid exposure.
Another big concern for residents is the threat of landslides. Wildfires can char soil and quicken the likelihood of erosion, which when paired with an onslaught of flooding rainfall creates yet another disaster residents must face. When fire burns up vegetation, it destroys what keeps soil stable. Then when it rains heavily, the water washes all of that soil away with ease.
The wildfires have had a devastating impact on the wineries in the area. As of Oct. 17, eight wineries were burned up: five in Napa, including Patland Vineyards, Roy Estate, Signorello Estate and White Rock Vineyards; Sonoma’s Paradise Ridge Vineyards and Mendocino’s Frey Vineyards and Backbone Vineyard & Winery, according to Wine Spectator. Dozens more have reported damage of various degrees. Some vineyards reportedly lost structures but their vineyards survived, while others have seen their fields and other natural property obliterated.
Winemakers have encountered a whole other hazard to the environment: the risk of tainted grapes.Napa County Agricultural Commissioner Greg Clark sent a notice to growers that grapes that came into contact with flame retardant from smoke in the air shouldn’t be harvested because they “are not safe for humans,” according to the Press Democrat.
The financial impact of these wildfires could be enormous, too. Consider the statistics for Napa and Sonoma counties alone: 45,341 acres of grapevines planted in Napa and 59,509 in Sonoma, encompassing 100,000 workers in businesses that contribute more than $25 billion annually to the local economy, according to the Washington Post.
Overall, winemakers, whose businesses straddle the human and natural environments, are stuck with the daunting task of trying to rebuild their operations.
Impacts on the Natural Environment
While the state’s ecosystems have adapted to rely on periodic, smaller scale natural fires for renewal, the scale of the recent string of fires could have negative impacts on flora and fauna that may take years from which to recover.
Intense wildfires can destroy the very foundation on which plants and animals alike rely. The blaze of intense wildfires are supremely destructive — quickly consuming in their path a large quantity of biomass and causing post-fire soil erosion and water runoff, in addition to the aforementioned air pollution.
The loss of topsoil and combustion of organic material can have a negative impact on a variety of processes, including nutrient retention and water infiltration, according to the U.S. Forest Service. To replace the soil’s lost nitrogen — an element crucial to plant growth — would require special plants that reset the balance. Furthermore, the blaze can exacerbate soil erosion, because of the burned up foliage.
More specifically, invasive weeds and grassses could overtake native plants and shrubs, making soil erosion more likely which could lead to even more frequent wildfires in the future, according to CBS.
The impact on animals will depend on the species. Smaller animals, such as rabbits and some birds, might have trouble surviving in the face of the loss of native vegetation on which they rely, the CBS piece said.
Depending on the ecosystem, various practices, such as expanded housing developments and the utilities they require, fire exclusion/firefighting, and timber harvesting, in the past several decades have made it easier for fires to get out of control, according to the USFS.
Overall, the human and natural environments of Napa, Sonoma, and neighboring communities have been devastatingly altered and will take years to return to normal — although that “normal” may have to be a new one.