This Is the New Normal: California and Constant Fire
Nature’s fury doesn’t come any clearer than the Kincade fire now raging across California’s wine country, with soot choking the air for miles and flames forcing nearly 200,000 people from their homes.
As of October 30, the fire had already burned more than 75,000 acres, an area more than twice the size of San Francisco, and led to power outages for nearly 2 million people. Just to add insult to injury, the Kincade fire is burning much of the same land consumed by the Tubbs fire two years earlier.
Meanwhile, down by Los Angeles, the Getty fire has already burned over 650 acres, leading to school closings and mandatory evacuations for thousands. In case these two weren’t enough, firefighters are battling another 15 fires that have all together consumed over 94,000 acres across the state, putting 2019 on track to be another devastating wildfire season in California.
If it feels like we were just here and the entire state must be going through PTSD, well, you’re right. After all, 2018 was the state’s worst wildfire season on record. Which came right after the previous worst wildfire season on record in 2017.
Yes, wildfires have always been a part of the natural cycle in the state’s forests and there are many factors in play. But with a stunning 15 of California’s 20 largest wildfires coming since 2000 – which happen to include 18 of the 19 warmest years on record – it’s clear something very, very different is happening too.
That something? Climate change.
Why California Wildfires Are Getting Worse
It starts with heat.
Over the past 100 years, Southern California has warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This increase has led to warmer spring and summer temperatures and longer summers across the state.
At the same time, as winters get warmer, less snow piles up in the mountains to feed rivers and streams. Plus, with springs coming sooner, snows melt earlier, creating longer and more intense dry seasons. Together, these factors increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests overall drier and more susceptible to severe wildfires.
Drought also plays a huge role. Faith Kearns, a scientist at University of California Institute for Water Resources in Oakland, reports that “Usually—or, I don't want to even say usually anymore because things are changing so fast—[California] get[s] some rains around Halloween that wet things down.” However, in recent years, those rains have not come until much later in the autumn—November, or even December.
Every day those rains don’t come is a day when fires can spark and spread. The lack of rain during the fall and winter season allows for the Diablo winds in the north and Santa Ana winds in the south to pick up. These offshore winds flow across the state at powerful speeds, with gusts reaching up to 70 or 80 MPH. These powerful winds can help start fires – like with the Kincade fire – or help to spread the fire far and wide, and fast.
In all, the effects of climate change have a destructive impact on California and has helped lengthen fire season by an estimated additional 105 days – well into December. “The same places in California that have had historic fires are likely to be in worse conditions in an additional 30 years,” said Chris Keithley, research manager for the Fire and Resource Assessment Program at Cal Fire. “Climate change is going to increase the overall risk potential.”
Breaking Records Again and Again.
Thanks to this unholy combination of rising heat, longer droughts, and powerful winds, record-breaking wildfires are becoming the terrifying new normal.
In 2017, the Tubbs fire scarred more than 36,800 acres of Napa and Sonoma counties and consumed nearly 3,000 homes, causing $9.7 billion in insurance losses. The same year, the Thomas fire burned over 280,000 acres of Southern California and set off deadly mudslides in Ventura County.
It was the state’s worst – and costliest – wildfire season. Until the next year, when the Mendocino Complex inferno raged over Northern California. After the month and a half, the fire charred just over 459,000 acres of land. In total, the fire costed around $220 million to fight and was California’s largest wildfire to date.
Yet, the destruction, cost, and area burned by the Mendocino Complex Fire pales in comparison to the devastation from the rest of California’s 2018 wildfire season. In 2018, a staggering 8,054 wildfires burned over 1.8 million acres.
Of these, the Camp, Carr, and Woolsey fires stand out. These three fires scarred 479,936 acres – just a bit more than the Mendocino Complex fire – cost up to $17 billion in insurance losses, and caused 97 fatalities.
No surprise then, that Californians are struggling with wildfires as part of regular life. “This is the new normal that we live in,” said David Hagele, mayor of Healdsburg in the heart of wine country, as the Kincade fire broke out this fall. “It’s disheartening, and it’s scary for a lot of people because it does bring back a lot of scary memories from a couple of years ago.”
California’s Fight Against Wildfires and Climate Change
Unlike the White House, California’s leaders recognize what’s happening right outside their windows and are taking action to solve it.
“We have to recognize we are living in a new world, particularly in a state like ours after a five-year historic drought, after 15 of the 20 most destructive fire seasons just since 2000 because of climate change,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said. “The hots are getting hotter, and the dries are getting drier, and the wets are getting wetter, which has aided and abetted these grass fires.”
This recognition has translated into an active approach to battling wildfires and climate change. This past summer, the California State Legislature passed a bill that would help reduce the risk that utility power lines spark wildfires and socialize the cost of compensating victims when those measures fail. Under the bill, the state utility companies would be required to invest another $5 billion to “harden” their power lines to make them less spark prone.
By pushing utility companies to have stronger power lines and poles, legislators hope to minimize wildfires like the Camp fire, which was caused by powerlines and became the state’s deadliest wildfire ever. Yet, even though installing taller, stronger metal transmission poles and providing greater distance between wires can significantly reduce the risk of sparks caused by wind and flying debris, it doesn’t prevent them – and wildfires – completely.
As an additional step to try to avoid errant sparks and fires, the state now requires utility companies to develop the capacity to cut off power in areas where strong winds and dry brush create a high risk for a disastrous fire. Better known as “public safety power shutoffs,” these rolling blackouts aim to prevent wildfires when wind speeds pose a threat to powerlines in dry areas.
Earlier this month, one utility, PG&E, shut down power to nearly 1 million people to avoid such a scenario, the largest planned outage in California history. Yet, Californians still have to face rolling blackouts when wildfires do occur. As mentioned earlier, rolling blackouts from the Kincade fire have caused nearly 2 million people in Northern California to lose power as PG&E tries to mitigate the risk of additional fires as high winds whip around the tinder-dry region. Sadly for Californians, these cuts will likely become just another new normal in life with the climate crisis.
You know what the climate crisis means for California. But what does it mean for you and your community?
Get the answers you need with a free Climate Reality presentation as part of 24 Hours of Reality: Truth in Action on November 20–21.