California's On Fire Again. That's How The World Is Now.
Huge wildfires are causing evacuations and massive destruction in both Northern and Southern California, and the dry, windy conditions that have been driving the fires are expected to continue. In case you were wondering what a future of a warming planet looks like, turn on the news feeds from California. It's not necessarily going to look like science fiction; it's going to be semi-normal much of the time, plus fairly regular non-normal events.
Firefighters in Sonoma County have made some small progress against the state's largest blaze, the Kincade fire, which has forced the evacuation of about 185,000 people so far and featured winds approaching 100 miles per hour. Over the weekend, the Kincade went from 5 percent containment to 15 percent, but hot winds are expected to return today, and that could whip up the fire even more. It's destroyed 123 structures so far, 57 of them homes, and roughly 90,000 structures remain threatened, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. And it's going to be a while before it's out:
Cal Fire officials said they hope to have the blaze fully contained by Nov. 7 but that it could burn for weeks or months afterward.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that firefighters -- some brought in from other states -- had been up against 330 fires on Sunday. And yet, he noted, this is only an "average" fire season. At a news conference after touring evacuation centers in Sonoma County, Newsom said, "I recognize and everybody recognizes, this cannot be the new normal. We cannot absorb this year after year."
Which is a good sentiment, but every indication is that it will be, and this is pretty much what climate scientists have been warning about for decades.
Southern California also has its own huge wildfire, the Getty Fire, named for the nearby Getty Museum in the hills of Los Angeles. The museum itself is secure and isn't planning to move any of its art, but residents of about 10,000 homes have been ordered to evacuate just in case the 600-acre fire expands due to Santa Ana winds. Mount St. Mary's University had to evacuate, too.
Just some news bulletins from the foreseeable future, kids.
Scientists agree that the warming climate has made wildfires worse; a study released in July pointed out that between 1972 and 2018, the annual area burned by wildfires in California had increased fivefold, and that the larger fires were
very likely driven by drying of fuels promoted by human‐induced warming. Warming effects were also apparent in the fall by enhancing the odds that fuels are dry when strong fall wind events occur. The ability of dry fuels to promote large fires is nonlinear, which has allowed warming to become increasingly impactful. Human‐caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California, particularly in the forests of the Sierra Nevada and North Coast, and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades.
A co-author author of the study, Columbia University climate scientist Park Williams, told the Atlantic, "Each degree of warming causes way more fire than the previous degree of warming did. And that's a really big deal."
Every additional increment in heat in the environment speeds up evaporation, dries out soil, and parches trees and vegetation, turning them into ready fuel for a blaze. For that reason, Williams said, hot summers essentially overpower anything else happening in Northern California. Even during a wet year, an intense heat wave can choke forests so that it is as though the rain never fell.
And yes, as we noted after last year's horrific California fires, there are other factors that add to just how deadly and destructive the fires are, and will be. And they don't have a damn thing to do with insufficiently raking the forests. Real estate development and poor regulation of where people build (and how they build) are also bad guys. (The term you want to Google is "wildland-urban interface.") Overdevelopment in fire-prone areas, and the continued dry conditions caused by climate change, combine to put too many homes and people at risk. Add into the mix a giant electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, that's far more interested in shareholder profits than in maintaining aging equipment and keeping dry brush away from sparky electric lines and transformers, and you've got a prescription for disaster. Oh, and look at what company's footprints might be found in the ashes of the Kincade fire:
The cause of the Kincade Fire is still unknown. PG&E reported that equipment on one of its transmission towers broke near the fire's origin point shortly before the blaze was reported at 9:27 p.m. Wednesday. Power had been shut off in the area, but not on that specific transmission line.
Climate change is even altering the nature of the seasonal winds that have been driving this week's fires. The New York Times explains the science behind the winds -- called "Santa Anas" in SoCal and the even scarier "Diablo winds" in NorCal, and highlights a recent study that indicates warming may mean fewer high winds in the fall, but a later start to the rainy season, with the fire season for California extending later into the winter in the future. And the land and air will just keep getting drier.
As environmentalist Bill McKibben pointed out, with three years of record wildfires, that "new normal" may already be here. He noted that Monday's San Francisco Chronicle offered this sobering line:
Fueled by a historic windstorm, the fires closed freeways, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and intensified fears that parts of California could become almost too dangerous to inhabit.
The "too" wasn't in the archived version of the story we found, making the areas merely "almost dangerous to inhabit," and subsequent updates to the story have removed the line altogether. Might have been worth leaving it, though, for the historical record. Even better, we could try to make sure the future isn't quite as flamey as right now. We need to do some work on that.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.