A Hotter World Means More Wildfires in our Future

For most of us in the North State, 2018 will be remembered as the year of multiple, devastating wildfires. First it was the Carr Fire, which destroyed over a thousand homes in Redding, killed eight people, including three firefighters, burned over 225,000 acres – or 350 square miles – lasted five, long, smoke-choking weeks in July and August, required the evacuation of 38,000 people and cost over $1.6 billion.

Ten weeks later, the Camp Fire ignited in Butte County, and quickly became the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in the history of California and was the world’s most expensive natural disaster of the year. The fire burned over 150,000 acres (nearly 240 square miles), destroyed the town of Paradise, killed 86 people, cost over $16 billion and led to the bankruptcy of the nation’s largest electric utility company, PG&E.

Satellite image of the Camp Fire by NASA.

Meanwhile, the Mendocino Complex Fire, that started a few days after the Carr Fire began and burned for over seven weeks, became the largest in California history, torching over 450,000 acres or 700 square miles.

Altogether, 2018 brought us the most destructive and deadliest wildfire season in the history of our state with over 8,500 fires that burned 1.8 million acres (nearly 3,000 square miles). And yet it wasn’t an anomaly. Just the previous year, 2017 set the record for the most destructive wildfire season in the state at the time, with more than 9,000 fires burning over 1.3 million acres (over 2,150 square miles), killing 47 people, nearly equaling the previous 10 years combined at a cost of $18 billion.

And the last two years were not a fluke but actually consistent with wildfire patterns of recent decades. Nine of the 10 most destructive fires in California history have happened since 2003. Six of the most destructive fires ever, occurred in the last three years and 16 of the 20 largest fires in California happened in the last 20 years. Why?

According to Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist and author who writes for Yale Climate Connections (YCC), the answer is human-caused climate change. He recently wrote about The Many Ways Climate Change Worsens California Wildfires, and wrote, “Years of record-setting California wildfires are consistent with mounting evidence of climate change as a principal factor.”

Nuccitelli and Jerry Hinkle, the Northern California Regional Coordinator for Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) will be in Redding this Friday night, February 1 at 7:00 PM at the First United Methodist Church, located at the corner of South and East Streets, where they will offer a presentation on Wildfires and Climate Change: The Connections and the Solutions for a Sustainable Future.

This is a free, special presentation sponsored by CCL, a non-profit, nonpartisan, grassroots advocacy organization focused on national policies to address the climate crisis, and (8) North State Climate Action, a coalition of local groups dedicated to raising awareness about climate change and working to help our region address the impacts. This event is designed to help educate the audience about the factors linking wildfires and climate change as well as offering solutions that will help mitigate damage from these events and allow us to adequately prepare for the future.

The event features two outstanding speakers with vast knowledge and experience in climate and economic policy. There will be time after the presentations for questions from audience members.

The presentations are based on the peer-reviewed science regarding the link between climate change and increased wildfires, and the science-based economics supporting effective solutions. The presentation and the mission of CCL and NSCA are completely non-partisan in nature. All are welcome.

Other sponsors include KKRN, KFOI, Wintu Audubon Society, Shasta Environmental Alliance (SEA), the Sierra Club and the Whole Earth and Watershed Festival (WEWF).
In his (6) YCC article, Nuccitelli cited scientific findings that indicate burning fossil fuels fills the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases, warming the planet and drying “out vegetation and soil, creating more wildfire fuel.”

In addition, “Climate change is shortening the California rainy season, thus extending the fire season.” Studies show, “The warming atmosphere is slowing the jet stream, leading to more California heat waves and high-pressure ridges in the Pacific. Those ridges deflect from the state some storms that would otherwise bring much-needed moisture to slow the spread of fires.”

Nuccitelli also wrote, “Global warming causes higher temperatures, and 2014 through 2018 have been California’s five hottest years on record.”

The cause is clear. As we continue to rely on oil, gas and coal, we are creating a much hotter world, which in turns causes “an increase in evapotranspiration – the combination of evaporation and transpiration transferring more moisture from land and water surfaces and plants to the atmosphere. Essentially, global warming causes plants and soil to dry out as the atmosphere holds more water vapor.”

When the Camp Fire exploded, it was due in part to the extremely dry conditions of the North State. Up to that point, we had received only 20 percent of our normal rainfall because “climate change is causing a shift in rain patterns.” A recent study found “as a result of global warming, California’s rainy season will become increasingly concentrated” to only three months, December through February which means “the state’s wildfire season will start earlier and end later.”

In other words, as we continue pollution as usual, we are directly impacting the climate, reducing rainfall and making devastating wildfires more likely, more frequent, faster, more damaging and harder to contain.

The solution, according to CCL, is contained in recent legislation introduced in both houses of Congress called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. This policy places a fee on fossil fuels that starts low and grows over time. This policy would for the first time place a predictable, steadily-rising price on the principle cause of global warming: carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  The money collected from the carbon fee is allocated in equal shares every month to the American people. The government does not keep any of the money, making this policy revenue neutral. Depending on their use of fossil fuels, most Americans will receive more money than they spend and will find economic incentives to begin their transition from “dirty” to clean energy sources. Studies show this response to the climate crisis will reduce America’s emissions by at least 40% in the first 12 years and will create over 2 million jobs.

It is too late to stop global warming and the numerous negative consequences it carries with it, such as a hotter world, increased droughts and floods and ever-worsening wildfires. However, we have a choice regarding how much worse it gets and how fast our climate deteriorates. This is a global crisis but it is happening locally to every community. Each of us is partly responsible for the problem and therefore each of us has a duty to help find a solution. Please come to the Methodist Church at 7 pm Friday, February 1 to learn more.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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14 Responses

  1. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Thanks for this, Doug. It doesn’t help that California is home to some 40+ million people.

  2. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    And right next door to California, Arizona had a significant decrease in wildfires in 2018 from 2017. There is a big difference in population but the majority of people live in big cities, not rural areas. Global Warming, or Climate Change as it should be called, isn’t just a California problem. California, the most populous state, emits more total pollution than any other state except Texas. And neither state ranks in the top fifty, by WHO, for most polluting areas. Fossil fuel burning does create this problem but it isn’t going away. Fire prevention, or lack of, is causing these fires to be bigger.

  3. Avatar Tim says:

    Have you considered the misanthropic possibility that climate change is the solution? Glaciers melt, waters rise, low lying metropolises submerge like Atlantis, poles shift altering weather patterns so gardens of eden become desert and unpopulated deserts become verdant – wiping out most of the human population and allowing the earth time to recover.

    If the world has pneumonia, do you really want to suppress her cough? Aren’t electric cars and solar panels just ways of making homosapiensis more resistant to treatment? Because it surely is not worth raping the seams of the earth to surround our children in 2 tons of steel and plastic while ferrying them across town to kick a ball on the ultimate symbol of nature’s submission: a painted & manicured pitch…

    If we truly wanted to live in harmony with the earth we would need to adopt the radical philosophy of packing out everything we pack in, of leaving no trace. We’d need to stop admiring how the “great civilizations” of China, Rome, Egypt, etc permanently mutilated their environment and start admiring & adopting the lives of the Plains Indians and Aboriginals.

    I just don’t see that happening in the days of Instagram…

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      I’m reading “Sapiens,” and it’s a bummer. Everything has gone downhill since the Agricultural Revolution—the Industrial Revolution is like the Agricultural Revolution on steroids. We aren’t well equipped to live in groups of more than 100, and to do so requires the creation of scores of just-so myths to hold social structures in place. Myths about how we came to be and who rightfully gets to be in charge. Basically, we’ve succeeded in making the vast majority of people (and animals on the planet, most of which by weight are domesticated and destined for slaughter) miserable.

      But the book is also a bummer because it destroys the myth of the noble hunter-gatherer, living in harmony with nature.

      Yep, even prior to the Agricultural Revolution, we pretty much sucked. When we were hunter-gatherers in Africa, we weren’t so bad—the megafauna of Africa had co-evolved with hunting apes and were plenty wary. But as we dispersed out of Africa, we slaughtered as much of the unwary megafauna as we could. Most of the megafauna of Australia disappeared overnight 45,000 years ago when humans arrived. When we arrived in the Americas, we drove the majority the megafauna from Alaska to the tip of South America to extinction in about 3,000 short years.

      It’s not hard to imagine an Earth in the not-distant future where humans and domesticated animals are the only critters larger than 100 lbs remaining on land, and the oceans are bare of all but benthic fish……because that’s the trajectory.

  4. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Excellent article Doug. Steven, I found that book to be mind boggling (I write as if I finished it, but I couldn’t only read a bit at a time, wait, and then reread and read more. The book was by my chair when we evacuated.) I think that if Harari’s ideas of the nature of large organized groups of people are true, then this knowledge could be put to good use somehow. I have no idea how you change a collective mind set of millions of people. I have no idea about the next step. Doug’s article describes the clear message that the North State is getting about the major impact on people climate can have. Thanks Doug.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      When the fire hit, I too was chipping away at Sapiens. Talk about an expansive view of where we’ve been and where we appear to be headed – the whole thing distilled and concentrated and very hard to refute. Probably should be sold with a doctor’s prescription for some of those “Don’t worry, be happy” pills.

  5. Avatar James Montgomery says:

    Sad that people are so ready to believe the urbanist propaganda machine.
    Not that man-caused global warming is not real and critically important. It is, and we really do need to overcome our dependence on fossil fuels.
    However, climate change is only a small contributing factor to devastating wildfire. The big problem is fuel build up, and that is primarily the fault of radical environmentalist groups using the legal process to prevent proper forest management.
    Try talking to professional foresters in private, where they can say what they really think without fear of losing their jobs. Or try talking to long-time rural residents, who actually live in the forest.

    • Avatar Tim says:

      While I agree that NIMBY environmentalists have made logging in NorCal almost prohibitively expensive compared to lesser regulated forests, I don’t recall there being much demand for logged Manzanita from Whiskeytown & West Redding.

      But perhaps some enterprising fellow will come along and conduct widespread goat grazing, allowing Shasta County to become the cashmere capitol of California.

      • Avatar James Montgomery says:

        You are right; proper forest management is only part of the solution. Where people have built in the chaparral, other measures must be used. Fire-resistant building materials- concrete, stone, cinder blocks- should be used.
        Defensible space is critical, too- goats, yes, and raking, etc. Cashmere! Great idea!

  6. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    The Payson Roundup, in the rim country of Arizona, had an article about fire prevention. Raking, which has been demonized by the urban propaganda machine because Trump said it, has actually prevented some homes from being consumed by wildfire while neighboring homes were destroyed. Of particular concern were those homes that allowed dry pine needles to cover roofs and fill rain gutters and lay under wooden eaves that were torched by wildfire embers. Fire prevention begins at home, not in some urban court.

  7. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Bruce, that’s why our roof and gutters were regularly cleaned That’s why the hills on our property were cleared of most trees and we spent days every year clearing weeds and grasses on our property.
    And Tim, as far as I can tell, there is no market for the Grey Pine and knob cone pines that forested the BLM land to the west and north of us. Along with, as you mentioned, manzanita and toyon.
    Raking is usually done after the trees are felled, and would be impractical or impossible on steep hill sides.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      I don’t know what fuel co-gen plants can use, but it would seem that manzanita, toyon, and digger pine and their cones would burn well – if only co-gen plants were viable.

    • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

      Raking, again because of Trump’s lack of knowledge and the Trump hater’s agenda, was taken totally out of reality. Raking was not meant in the forest but around houses and outbuildings where the buildup of pine needles and leaves are left to explode from hot embers or even a spark from a mower hitting a rock. If people are to live in rural areas they have to do more landscaping than urban areas.
      When I lived on nine acres outside of Cheyenne I had to trim trees and mow the grass and, yes, rake the leaves and pine needles and tumbleweeds from around the house. Here in Phoenix I trim a few bushes and spray roundup on the few weeds that pop up out of the gravel landscape. Also when I lived in Wyoming and Nebraska the fields, after harvest, were not burned, like in California, but left for cattle to feed on and thousands of bird to feed on.

  8. Avatar James Montgomery says:

    Carbon taxes and administrative tricks are all fine and dandy, but if you really want to be the hero of the world, invent an alternative-fuel engine that will bolt right into existing cars in place of the existing gas engine.