No break in sight: Climate change stokes fiery future for California
Striding through the brown, sun-dried grass on a slope at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Caitlin Cornwall stopped to touch a slender stalk of blue wild rye, crowned by a tasseled seed pod.
The 3,900-acre park in the Mayacamas Mountains near Kenwood was largely overrun by the Nuns fire in October, and the signs of recovery are abundant. Most of the live oak, bay and madrone trees survived; smaller Douglas firs perished and are being dismantled by beetles and woodpeckers.
The grasslands are generally healthier than they were before last fall’s blaze and could readily burn again, said Cornwall, a biologist with Sonoma Ecology Center, which has managed the park since 2012.
“This is all a fire-created natural community,” she said. The park burned in 1964, also by a fire named Nuns.
Indeed, fire shaped the drought-prone landscape for thousands of years, as Native Americans used it to maintain meadows and forests that provided deer, elk and acorns for food as well as grasses for basketry.
But now, climate change has thrown the symbiosis of humans, fire and the landscape into catastrophic disarray. Much of California is a year-round tinderbox, with fast-moving wildfires erupting so quickly this year that firefighters have rushed from one to the next, with the usual peak of the fire season still to come.
“It just takes one spark,” said Scott McLean, a deputy chief with Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting and forestry agency.
As heat-trapping gases continue to pour into the atmosphere and temperatures inch upward, drawing moisture from the soil and vegetation, the state’s vast landscape is growing increasingly volatile, costing lives and billions of dollars in fire damage.
Compounding the menace of climate change, experts say the wildfire situation is only going to get worse.
To say California is in a “new normal,” as Gov. Jerry Brown did last month, is misleading because it implies a steady condition going forward, said LeRoy Westerling, a management professor at UC Merced’s School of Engineering.
Instead, the state faces increasing peril from climate change for several decades to come, he said.
“What we’ve been observing on the ground keeps outpacing what we predict,” Westerling said. “The new abnormal is constant change.”
California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, released last month, said the Golden State is “one of the most ‘climate-challenged’ regions of North America,” with a historically variable climate that is now seeing “extreme conditions more frequent and severe.”
By century’s end, wildfires larger than 25,000 acres could become 50 percent more frequent if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed, the report said.
Harm from heavy rains, drought, rising sea levels and diminishing snowpack are also cited.
Out on the land, the fire toll is already stunning.
Blazes more destructive
Cal Fire estimates wildland fires consumed 1.4 million acres last year, more than double the average of the previous decade.
As bad as 2017 was - with the North Bay wildfires killing 40 people and destroying more than 6,000 homes - fires this year have burned an estimated 1.3 million acres prior to October, the month when many of California’s all-time worst wildfires have raged.
Six of the state’s 20 most destructive fires - measured by structures destroyed - along with five of the 20 deadliest fires and three of the 20 largest, based on acreage, have ignited in 2017 and 2018.
The Mendocino Complex, a combination of two blazes started in late July and still smoldering in the southern part of the Mendocino National Forest, is now the largest ever at nearly 460,000 acres - 60 percent larger than the Thomas fire which raked Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December.
The horrific Carr fire at Redding in July is on all three top-20 lists after killing seven people, destroying more than 1,600 structures and charring almost 230,000 acres.
A fire tornado, 1,000 feet wide and packing winds of about 150 mph, engulfed and instantly killed Jeremy Stoke, a 37-year-old Redding firefighter.
“We haven’t gotten a break,” Cal Fire’s McLean said. State and local firefighters responded to 200 to 300 wildfires a week in July through August, and fought more than 1,000 fires one week in July, mostly small blazes and some over 300 acres.
“We’re just rolling from one (fire) to another,” he said.
The fire season started early in Northern California, with triple-digit heat and erratic winds in late May and early June, “drying out whatever moisture was in the plants,” McLean said.
Threatened residents are being evacuated more quickly, he said, as fires move rapidly and erratically.