When I landed in California last week, the first thing I remarked on was the weather. “Sure is hot out,” I said to my Uber driver.

“Yeah, it’s on fire,” she replied. “Literally.” She then proceeded to point out the hazy clouds of smoke billowing on the horizon. They hung in the air surprisingly close to LAX, though I knew that all my Angeleno friends were safely out of the danger zone. Many other forms of life, however, were not as lucky. From the mountains to the furry California residents to the displaced families, danger-zone emergency workers and the threatened and lost lives, the fires blazing through the Southern part of the Golden State have long since roared their way into national attention.

The recent round of December wildfires were spread by strong Santa Ana winds, forcing over 212,000 people to evacuate. More than a staggering 257,000 acres and over 1,000 structures have burned due to the flames, with two lives reported to have been taken as of Dec. 16.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) dates California wildfires back to the 1930s, ranking their severity by terms of territory burned, structures consumed and lives lost. To put the recent fire statistics into perspective, the Los Angeles Daily News reports in a recent article that the Northern California fires in October burned through 245,000 acres, destroying 8,900 structures and claiming 43 lives. According to news website Mother Jones, the October fire damage cost over a billion dollars. The LA Times states that the October fires in Northern California and the current fires in Southern California make it the most destructive year for fires in California history.

A Dec. 16 article for the LA Times discusses the lessons learned from the previous fires, stating that the current Southern California fires were spread by ferocious winds that made the fires incapable of being put out. Fire consumes structures alarmingly fast, with areas at once seemingly in the clear becoming engulfed by flames almost instantaneously. Due to the destruction and devastation of the October fires, factors such as communication, warning, firefighting resources and the role of electric lines have been addressed in earlier stages of the current devastation.

A Forbes article dating back to September examined the alarmingly rapidity that fires can spread, chronicling that a fire along the border of Oregon and Washington engulfed more than 3,000 acres in a mere 24 hours. As many as four out of five wildfires are caused by human activity. Summer on the west coast proves particularly risky, with warm, dry lengths of time creating ideal conditions for the spread of flames. The combination of high levels of oxygen along with large amounts of flammable plant material leave the only missing factor to be the initial ignition of flame, with Mother Nature easily aiding the rest of the devastation with high winds. The article states that fires can travel up to 6 miles-per-hour in forests and over twice as fast —up to 14 miles-per-hour —in grasslands.

In response to the Ventura County fires, National Geographic released a recent article with tips for wildfire prevention. They urged people to never leave a fire unattended while spending time in nature —always extinguish the flame entirely and stir the ashes until cold. Spilling flammable liquids should be avoided, with carefully attention paid to lighting appliances and taking care to allow appliances to cool before reheating. Smoking materials should never be discarded from moving vehicles and should always be extinguished entirely. Another area of concern is the burning of yard waste, which should be avoided in windy conditions and always be done with a shovel, water and fire retardant handy.

As innocent lives are put at risk and families displaced from their homes, firefighters and emergency personnel are willingly risking their brave lives as they try to quell the destruction. Also displaced are thousands of animals, who have had their homes inexplicably burn and are now running terrified, homeless and in need of help and human kindness.

Stay safe this holiday season, and take the time to be grateful, not only for your family but for the wealth of opportunities and comforts made available to you on a daily basis. It shouldn’t have to take losing something to allow us to realize the value of what we already have. So this holiday season, don’t forget to be extra aware of all you are blessed with. As always, stay happy, healthy and keenly aware. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Emma Polini is the managing editor of the Van Alstyne Leader, Anna-Melissa Tribune and Prosper Press. What do you want in your paper? Email her at epolini@heralddemocrat.com to let her know.