The TrickyScribe: Located in the western United States, California, also the third largest US state in terms of size, is in the grips of biggest wildfires in history, as the scorching summer rolls on. But what has caused them? Is climate change to blame?
California has experienced record wildfires in the past two years, but local governments and public pressure are preventing reforms despite worries about global warming.
Largest of the ten fires burning across the state is the Mendocino Complex fire, spanning more than 3.5 lakh acres. Hot on its heels is the Carr Fire, raging across more than 2 lakh acres. The largest fire in California history continued to grow on Thursday while firefighters worked to protect threatened communities.
As of Thursday morning, the Ranch fire had consumed 3.15 lakh acres and was 64% contained. It has destroyed 147 homes so far. One firefighter of Draper City, Utah, Matthew Burchett, in his early forties, has died battling the fire.
The fires have claimed at least eight lives so far, injured dozens and forced tens of thousands from their homes and cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. The California fires – the deadliest of 104 active across the United States – have reignited the long-standing climate change debate.
Residents around Clearlake have been allowed to return home, but new evacuation orders were announced in the last few days for communities to the east and west of Mendocino National Forest, including Stonyford, Lodoga and Potter Valley. That presents another challenge for firefighters.
Unlike the Clearlake area, which is fairly accessible by road, these communities are farther into the forest and surrounded by more rugged terrain, said Cary Wright, a Cal Fire spokesperson. Wright said the persistent low humidity has allowed the fires to continue growing — by 9,400 acres on Wednesday and 1,300 acres Tuesday. On Thursday, firefighters were expecting to get a brief break in the hot weather.
Nighttime humidity rose significantly Tuesday for the first time since the fire started, Wright said. Firefighters count on the drop in temperature and increase in humidity that usually occurs naturally overnight to allow them to make progress.
That, however, hasn’t been happening in Lake County recently. Nighttime humidity levels have consistently been in the teens to 30% range. Tuesday night, the humidity reached 80%. The good news notwithstanding, the fight is far from over. Firefighters are still struggling with the terrain as the fire approaches Snow Mountain Wilderness. They are using natural and manmade barriers ahead of the fire to the north, and are placing most on-the-ground resources to the east and west where homes are threatened, Wright said.
Foot in mouth
US interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, visited the Mendocino Complex fire area earlier this week. Zinke took the opportunity to direct blame at environmentalists for the infernos. He said climate change had “nothing to do” with the fires, but that limits on logging were to blame.
Talking to mediapersons, he said: “America is better than letting these radical groups control the dialogue about climate change. “Extreme environmentalists have shut down public access. They talk about habitat and yet they are willing to burn it up.”
Zinke said that as some environmentalists have campaigned for logging restrictions, they are decreasing a useful means of forest management, creating extra fuel for the fires. Calling for an increase in timber harvesting, he said: “This is not a debate about climate change.”
Fires across the west are burning hotter and more intense. The overload of dead and diseased timber in the forests makes the fires worse and more deadly. We must be able to actively manage our forests and not face frivolous litigation when we try to remove these fuels.
— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) August 6, 2018
His comments echo US President Donald Trump’s recent sentiments, expressed in an August 5 tweet which read: “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean.
California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2018
The water claim made by the president, referencing decades-long disputes over California water rights, was met with immediate backlash and confusion because firefighters are not struggling with a water shortage.
Mechanics behind wildfires: Watch what happens after a blaze and what doesn’t!
To understand what drives America’s increasingly severe wildfire problem, watch what happens after a blaze—and what doesn’t.
In the wake of last year’s widespread fires in California, the state found $300 million to pay for helicopters, increased staffing at its emergency command centers, and established a task force on forest management. What the state didn’t do enough of, fire safety experts warn is push through the sort of change that matters most: fewer ill-protected homes at the edge of the forest.
Undisputed need for new ideas
In California, wildfire records are falling at an ever-quickening pace. The 1932 Matilija Fire held the title of the state’s largest for 71 years, toppled only by the 2003 Cedar Fire, which remained the biggest for 14 years. Thomas Fire in December last surpassed the Cedar, burning an area almost as large as Los Angeles; that record lasted just eight months, until the Ranch Fire, a part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, overtook it on Aug. 12. And there are still months to go before the end of the fire season—if that term means anything anymore.
State and local governments may not be able to reverse the rising temperatures and prolonged droughts that spur wildfires. There, however, are changes that can help—including applying tougher building codes to more new homes, retrofitting old ones, more aggressive landscape rules, less development in the most vulnerable areas, and letting insurers charge premiums that reflect the risk of wildfire. Those reforms, however, remain anathema in a state squeezed by rising housing costs and the instinct to help communities rebuild as quickly as possible.
Another problem is that local governments typically wait until after a wildfire to decide what, where, and how to rebuild, which is the exact moment when emotions are heightened, said Founder & CEO, Wildfire Planning International, which advises governments on fire policy, Molly Mowery.
A better approach, said Molly, is to establish policies beforehand, when it’s easier to think dispassionately. The trouble is that communities tend not to spend time planning for catastrophe, and few local officials believe their town is next. “They’re often not thinking about the front end of disasters, let alone the back end,” she said.