The new California fires are a warning for all of us. Wildfires all over the world are the new reality. The current rash of fires in California are just a taste of what is to come.
For one thing, it is now obvious that climate change is real and that it is happening right now. This is not a big complicated idea. It’s really pretty simple. The world has clearly been getting warmer and warmer. Almost every year has been the warmest ever. And dry, warm land is like tinder just waiting for a spark.
California has been been getting hotter every year. And it is getting hotter faster than many other places. The average world temperature increase since the industrial revolution is about 1 degree Fahrenheit. But in California it is 3 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hotter air sucks water out of the earth and everything living on it. So, with its higher temperatures, CA gets extremely dry by the late fall. It is primed for fire. And that is where we are right now.
As the atmosphere heats up, California has been having more and more fires. An article in the National Geographic says, “since the 1980s, the size and ferocity of the fires that sweep across the state have trended upward: Fifteen of the twenty largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000. And since the 1970s, the amount of area burned in the state has increased by a factor of five.”
The most disastrous California fires usually happen in the fall. By fall the long, hot CA summers have dried both the northern pine-lands and the southern chaparral to tinder. And the hot, dry Santa Anna winds blow with almost hurricane force making the conflagrations almost unstoppable.
Last year was the worst fire year ever in California. So far. But this year is shaping up to be worse.
In November of 2018 the Camp Fire wiped out the entire town of Paradise. It spread to more than 149,000 acres. It left at least 85 people dead and about 9,700 homes destroyed.
In Southern California, the Ranch fire was the largest of the two blazes in the massive Mendocino Complex. It began last summer and was not contained until January. In all, 459,123 acres and more than 280 structures were burned. One firefighter was killed and three injured.
And now we have the Kincaid fire in northern California and another one building rapidly, north of Los Angeles.
The Kincade fire roared through the steep canyons in the wine country of northern Sonoma County, racing across 16,000 acres within hours of igniting. Wind gusts pushed the fire through forests like blow torches. Firefighters had little opportunity to stop or slow down the walls of flames rolling across wild lands and across highways overnight.
And north of Los Angeles, 50,000 people were evacuated as strong winds swept fires into the canyons of Santa Clarita. Many homes burned.
So far, hundreds of thousand of people have been evacuated from these areas. This often happened in the middle of the night. Many people didn’t get evacuation alerts. This was because PG&E, one of the major California power companies turned off their power. In one case a whole subdivision didn’t get notified and had to leave their homes in pitch black with only a couple minutes of notice.
Hundreds of thousands of Californians lost their electricity for days at a time. PG&E turned off their power because their power lines tend to blow down in high winds. And this sends showers of sparks into dry forests where they start new fires. It’s looking like the Kincaid Fire began this way.
The Kincaid fire was not the only one that may have started from electrical sparks. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January of 2019. They were accused of having faulty equipment that started many wildfires in past years.
Pacific Gas and Electric filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2019. This is mainly because it is facing tens of billions of dollars in liability for wildfires. The company’s faulty equipment may have caused wildfires that killed dozens of people, destroyed thousands of homes and resulted in billions of dollars in damage.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says that equipment owned by the utility sparked at least 17 of the 21 major wildfires that burned through California in 2017. The company may be responsible for at least some of the damage that resulted. However, authorities recently cleared the company of responsibility in an 18th fire in 2017, a giant blaze that killed 22. State officials are still investigating the utility’s role in the fire of 2018.
PG&E declared bankruptcy because of all this legal liability. This ended up in a multibillion dollar bailout by the California State Treasury. Bottom line, PG&E was allowed, more or less, to return to business as usual.
Understandably a lot of people were very angry about all of this. Mostly these were the people forced to leave their homes in the middle of the light with no lights or even cell phones. (Cutting power also shuts down all the cell phone towers in the area.)
And so what we have here is large hunks of one of the most progressive and prosperous states in America being forced to temporarily revert to Stone Age conditions.
Admittedly, this is overstating the situation. The world is not going to end overnight. The blackout problem is fixable. The most immediate fix is probably to bury all power lines underground in fireproof trenches.
The problem of people leaving their homes in the middle of the night can also be alleviated. We can surely eliminate the terror and confusing this causes with better evacuation plans. Administrators can surely do this in a very progressive state like California.
An even better solution might be for the California state government to take over utilities like PG&E and run them themselves. Possible when the welfare of the California residents is a higher priority than making higher profits, installing and maintaining better equipment might happen more often.
The current California fires are just a warning. Everyone from Gov Jerry Brown to the LA Times is saying that this is just the beginning. This is just early days in the global warming crisis that is overtaking us more rapidly than anyone thought possible.
We are not going to solve the global warming crisis instantly. But we need to start now. And we also need to work out better ways of dealing with the wildfire crisis we are going to be living in for at least the next twenty years.
On rereading this article, that last guess seems hopelessly optimistic. I think cooling the world to lessen forest fire danger may be impossible. So we are left with making it livable and maybe in the long term solvable.
And this crisis is not just in California. It is all over the American West and much of the midwest and East Coast as well. Not to mention all over the world.
Here is more information on California fires as a warning of what is in store for us in a warming world.
Here are a few pictures of unburnt America