FIRES IN CALIFORNIA
Fires ravaged California's natural and constructed landscape this year, burning more than 250,000 acres while the United States government just released a new report stating that climate change is occurring more rapidly than previously thought. The report goes on to state that among other things like droughts, floods, food insecurity, and heat waves, fires will undoubtably become more severe as time goes on, and the temperature rises. The Camp fire in Northern California, originating near the town of Paradise, has burned the landscape to ashes. Being the deadliest fire in California's history, it burned 153,336 acres, and took 86 lives. It is suspected that the fire could have been started by downed landlines owned by PG&E, similar to The Cascade Fires of 2017, and while lawsuits have been filed, there is no definitive proof yet. Simultaneously, another exceptionally large fire burned in Southern California's Malibu Mountains. The Woolsey fire which took three lives, burned 96,949 acres, and solidified the notion that fires will become a regular part of Californian's lives for years to come. The National Climate Association Report states that climate change poses new risks to communities which are most vulnerable, and if left unchecked, it will lead to increased inequality in our nation. Furthermore it will lead to hundreds of billions of dollars of costs in clean up and relief efforts, as well as as much as a 10% loss in domestic GDP Production. Experts say that there is no telling what systematic risks could be revealed once the climate and its temperate zones begin to shift. There will be massive changes to agricultural land, and an increase of pests amidst the continuing sixth mass extinction of species on the planet which is directly caused by habitat destruction, and environmental change. Both water, and food security will decline, and there is no telling how our current systems will react to the instability of the climate. So, with two massive fires burning at the same time, and the U.S. Government saying that climate change is amplifying their causes and longevity, it's hard to ignore what has become an annual disaster. That's why a videographer, Tyler Young has taken it upon himself to film an opinion documentary on the affects of the fires, smoke, and pollution, disturbing residents of the Bay Area. Taking to the streets, and talking with those affected, watch the film to see what everyone's thinking about the fires.
Wildfires have gotten worse throughout the western United States over the last decade. Federal agencies now regularly spend upwards of $1billion/year fighting fires, and far less preventing them. Scientists A. L. Westerling, H. G. Hidalgo, D. R. Cayan, & T. W. Swetnam from various Universities, State, and Federal Agencies including; USGS, have constructed a database on wildfires in the western U.S. since the 70’s and compared this to hydroclmatic, and land-surface data like this cool NDVI map from NASA and NOAA.
They open by stating that much of the recent discussion around wildfires has been driven primarily by land-use history, and forest management which leads to the conclusion that ecological restoration, and fuel management, should help mitigate these newfound fire risks. Often this means allowing for some sort of controlled burning to promote forest health, and decrease the low-lying shrubs that can build up and lead to unstoppable fires. Though they go on to state that if a changing climate has been the majority cause of these fires in recent decades, that changes in ecological practices might have little desired change. So they Set up their study to resolve precisely this problem.
Largely due to timber interests in the U.S. fire suppression began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This caused changes in forest structure, and ecological habitats across the board as many ecosystems were dependent upon natural low intensity surface fires for regular forest health. However as low-lying shrubs are prevented from regular burning, which can occur naturally anywhere from every 3-20 years, the fuel storage which has built up on the ground then accumulates and leads to more intense fires which not only burn longer, and hotter, over a more expansive area before dying out, they also take with them many of the underlying nutrients in the soil as they are so much hotter than a regular surface fire.
Climate change is thought to play a significant factor in the causes of fires in relation to variable moisture conditions, drought frequency, and increased average temperature. Historical records taken from tree ring surveys show that forests and wildfire risks are strongly and positively associated with increased drought conditions, and specially susceptible are ponderosa pine forests which are prevalent in the pacific Northwest.
The greatest increase in wildfires was seen in the Northern Rockies which account for 60% of the increase in large fires despite not being managed in the fire suppressive way which much of the timber industry forests were managed. The next largest increases came from the Sierra Nevada, Southern Cascades, and Coastal ranges of Northern CA, & Southern OR. This indicates that historical forest management played a smaller role than previously thought, though is still certainly one of many factors in forests which have been managed in this way.
Researchers also noted a correlation with snowfall. Faster snow melt due to earlier spring seasons, and faster water runoff times as grounds plagued with droughts do not allow for as much water absorption into creeks, streams, and other riparian zones. This may also lead to a “firehose effect” in floodplains in which rivers are cutting deeper into the land when they are not allowed to flood into floodplains, thus depriving the soils of nutrients and moisture needed to defend against fires.
Their findings and historical data show that since the 1980’s, there has been a shift on average from infrequent large fires with a one-week duration, towards more frequent longer burning fires with an average of five-weeks duration. They say the shift was marked by unusually warm springs, & longer summers which are more dry leading to dryer vegetation and underbrush. They also state that reduced winter snowfall and precipitation along with early spring snowmelt played a significant role.
They conclude in saying that ecological and forest restoration alone will not be enough to mitigate these wildfires we have been seeing, and that in coming decades warmer summers, earlier springs, less consistent precipitation, and vulnerability to these fires will increase. The IPCC’s estimate of between 1.5 degrees and 5.8 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100 is considerably larger than our current level of increase which is estimated to be at 0.9 degrees since the Industrial Revolution. So what’s to come could be even more bleak, and while only time will tell, we certainly know enough to take action now.
Additional Material from: http://fire.ca.gov/current_incidents/