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Answers Among Ashes: Preparing California for Wildfires


Not long ago, California made national news for the wrong reasons: mega wildfires.

The Woolsey fire was the worst in Malibu’s history, while the Northern California Camp Fire was the deadliest the U.S. had seen in 100 years. 

Whether the fires were witnessed first hand, or from the safety of a living room sofa, we were all shocked and left with questions: What can be done to prevent mega wildfires from occurring again and getting worse? What role does climate change play? By sifting through the ashes, we are discovering answers and taking action.   

Understanding the Effects of Climate Change 

There’s little doubt that climate change is acting as a wildfire threat multiplier. In many parts of the state, fire size and intensity is now far greater than what many scientists believe is natural.

Climate change and drought are causing our natural lands to dry out, so they aren’t able to “do their job” and reduce carbon. This has also led to an abundant fuel source of dead trees and brush. Left unchecked, our Southern California lands are headed toward more browning and more fires, according to UCLA’s Glen MacDonald, the John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography. 

If we want to prevent future infernos, our natural and urban lands must recover and thrive. But they need our help. UCLA researchers, faculty and friends are rising to meet this challenge head on, moving their knowledge into the world to create lasting change. 

Helping Our Lands Heal 

One such program is the the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge. This transformational endeavor will see UCLA lead L.A. County to 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent local water and enhanced ecosystem health by 2050. The undertaking is a diverse collaboration of 200 experts and 40 departments, bringing together specialists from environmental engineering to urban design, and more. Through forward-thinking science, new policy and breakthrough technology we will see, amongst many benefits, our carbon footprint reduced.  

An undertaking as ambitious as the Sustainable LA Challenge requires strong partnerships between the university, the community and local government. UCLA was honored to advise the creation of the L.A. County plan for sustainability. Together with the county, we will combine our respective strengths and accomplish our shared goals.  

Another way that we are offsetting our carbon footprint is by planting trees in our forests, backyards and sidewalks. UCLA Ph.D. Edith de Guzman is the research director at TreePeople, an organization that has helped L.A. County plant more than three million trees. Recovery and preservation efforts like this are vital for the city to defend itself from climate change, cool excess heat from exposed asphalt and beautify our city. 

Native animal life also needs our support. While often small in size, animals play a large role in the recovery and maintenance of our natural lands. UCLA researchers are studying how the Woolsey fire has impacted their habits and habitats. And researchers are supported by nearly 100 student volunteers from UCLA, CSUN, CSCI and SMC. 

Stopping Fires Before They Start

UC researchers have also been busy predicting the future. Led by Alex Hall, the Director of the Center for Climate Science at UCLA, they’ve created a sophisticated wildfire prediction system. This high-resolution computer model simulates climate, vegetation and fire behavior to answer questions about the future of forests and fires in California. Simulations help researchers understand the causes of recent tree death and fire variations, quantify the negative impact of recent climate change, and predict how climate change will shape fire in the future. 

When faced with global challenges like climate change, it’s natural for us to feel small, even powerless. But we don’t have to keep feeling that way. UCLA researchers, students and community members are out there today, making a difference. And you can join them. We all have knowledge to share, and we can all take part in the solutions. By taking action together, we stand up to our challenges and prevail.