Like the ancient tribes that once inhabited California’s hills and valleys, modern-day residents can also read their future in fire.
Last year was a wildfire record breaker for the state, no matter how you measure it: largest, deadliest, longest, worst. The Woolsey Fire, for instance, was twice the size of any previous Malibu wildfire, yet it represented only five percent of total California acres burned in 2018. And, of course, the death toll in the Camp Fire was unprecedented.
Scientists expect it to get worse — a lot worse. According to researchers at Harvard, by the year 2050, the annual acreage burned by wildfires across the western United States will at least double, and perhaps quadruple. All because of climate change.
The link between climate change and wildfires is fairly straightforward. The warmer and drier the climate, the more tinder is created. (California’s forests, which cover a third of the state, are now choked with some 150 million dead trees.) The more tinder, the larger and more frequent the fires—and the longer the fire season.
In fact, California’s situation has reached the point now where both fire scientists and firefighters have suggested dropping the word “season,” because the threat is year-round. Winter rains used to help extinguish December fires, but no more. (See related article, “Winter Wildfires: The New Normal.“)
And climate change appears to be making everything more extreme. According to one recent study, by 2100 parts of the planet could be hit by six climate-related natural disasters at once. Not good news for a state that already suffers more than its share of wildfires, earthquakes, mudslides and droughts.
One big factor contributing to the ferocity and unpredictability of California’s wildfires is the notorious wind, which is getting worse. CalFire officials used to plan for wind events that could last as long as four days. Now they plan for two weeks.
“No one will ever be honest about this, but firefighters have never stopped a wildfire powered by Santa Ana winds,” environmental historian Mike Davis recently stated. “All you can hope for is that the wind will change.”
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Because the state’s infernos are being bellowed by those winds, they’re now about 400 degrees hotter than they used to be — 2,100 degrees. Hot enough to turn the silica in California’s soil into glass. They cause not just firestorms, but fire tornadoes.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently disclosed,“There aren’t more fires now. We just can’t control them the way we used to.”
According to fire historian Stephen Pyne, not only is California “built to burn,” but it’s built to burn “explosively.” In Paradise last year, the Camp Fire leaped from one man-made structure to another. The homes were the fuel. During the Woolsey Fire, one Malibu resident remarked, “There’s nothing left to burn, except us.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti described the Woolsey Fire this way:
“I’ve looked at a lot of fires, and this one was strange…it was like swords shooting out and stabbing certain homes or certain swaths of homes. Then ones right next door were absolutely fine. There was something very predatory about it. It was like a stalker — not hungry for everybody, but when it’s hungry, it’s ravenous.”
People mistakenly believe that cities don’t burn. Not true, according to Pyne: “The fires are going where the houses are,” he said.
The Sacramento Bee dramatically illustrated that point in the following drone footage, which was filmed last November:
In response to last year’s tragedies, at least one of which was caused by a downed power line, California utility Pacific Gas & Electric plans to cut off electricity to certain areas during high-wind days. This means entire cities in PG&E’s service area could be without power for days.
The state’s other investor-owned utilities also have shutoff programs planned, but on a smaller scale.
The shutoff strategy has California Governor Newsom worried. “We’re all worried about it for the elderly,” he said. “We’re worried about it because we could see people’s power shut off, not for a day or two, but potentially a week.”
Clearly, when it comes toCalifornia’s wildfire risk, desperate times call for desperate measures. And yet, one wonders if it will ever be enough.
Probably not, according to Mayor Garcetti. He thinks trying to make progress in the face of climate change is like “grasping at clouds.”
“And there will be those days and moments where we realize the Earth is sending us a cry for help every single time this happens.”