Climatically Speaking: November Fires Bring Tragedy and Smoke to California

 Icebergs, Photo by Ghost Presenter from  Pexels

Icebergs, Photo by Ghost Presenter from Pexels


Fires in California and the climate change connection, a wavy jet stream, smoke and hazardous air quality, lending a hand, an interview with Michael Mann at PBS and building fire-resistant communities.


Greetings

It’s been awhile since I posted an edition of Climatically Speaking. I was away far too long; but, sometimes, it’s important to slow down and take care of family. I also moved, again. And I don’t recommend doing that: moving twice in two years. But I’m slowly getting settled. And even though I hadn’t planned on resuming my publishing schedule just yet, my muse struck last night—no doubt, prompted by the fires—keeping me awake with endless phrases circling in my head. So … here we are. Welcome back.

In today’s edition of Climatically Speaking, I cover recent California fires—the Camp Fire, the Hill Fire and the Woolsey Fire—and how they relate to climate change. I also share some articles on how we might—moving forward—protect fire-prone areas from the horrific devastation we’ve seen in recent years. And last but not least, I found an excellent interview with climate scientist Michael Mann at PBS, which explains the connection between climate change and extreme weather in such a way that you might as well scroll to the end and skip reading everything in between. Though I hope you’ll stick around!

But before I share today’s stories, I would like to let you know about two new blog posts I wrote during my break from Climatically Speaking: One is a climate change haiku, called “Oozing Oil Drips.” The other piece is an essay on how climate change is likely to affect the Sacramento Valley over the next several centuries. Although it’s based on solid science, the piece gets a little fantastical at the end when I imagine crazed investors diving for “centuries-old relics” in a flooded Napa Valley. I think they would most likely be searching for lost bottles of vintage wine. Can’t you just picture it?

Anyway, I hope you’ll give my story a read to learn how climate change is set to decrease water availability; increase temperature, flooding and vector-borne diseases while disrupting crops and changing the overall feel of my community in the Sacramento Valley. What about your neighborhood?

November Fires: Camp Fire, Woolsey Fire and Hill Fire

Three devastating fires have struck California this November: the Camp Fire in Butte County, which lies in Northern California, and the Woolsey and Hill Fires located in the southern part of the state in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. The death toll from the Camp Fire, as of Tuesday, November 20, had climbed to 79 with the town of Paradise having been essentially wiped off the map and 699 people still missing. And although rain is expected in the area by Wednesday, it could dampen the search for more bodies while also causing mudslides. Officials expect the Camp Fire to be fully contained by November 30.

The Woolsey Fire resulted in three deaths and full containment is expected by November 22 while the Hill Fire—most likely caused by human activity—has already been extinguished.

Hazardous air quality

But I would also like to point out that over the course of this past week, Northern California had the worst air quality of anywhere on the planet, as noted by Daniel Swain on the California Weather Blog. That includes the community where I live, Davis, California. I’ll write more about that soon and provide information on types of air masks and where to purchase them. So please stay tuned!

Providing relief

If you would like to support the people and communities harmed by these fires, The New York Times posted a helpful piece with tips on how to donate wisely along with the names of organizations accepting funds. And Fast Company published a story, too, with a list of 19 ways to help both people and animals impacted by California fires.

Fires, Climate Change and a wavy jet stream

Climate change did not cause these fires; it worsened conditions that make fires more likely to occur. Let’s take a look.

As temperatures rise and soils dry out, vegetation becomes parched and vulnerable to the smallest of sparks. By this time of year, however, California has usually had some rain. In fact, the running joke in our family is: “It’s Halloween; don’t forget to take an umbrella!” But this year, the umbrellas stayed put. These factors combined with the Diablo winds in Northern California and the Santa Ana’s down south made the situation perilous. And scientists expect such weather patterns to become more common as Earth warms from excessive greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But something else to consider, too, is that these hot, dry weather patterns in the West are, in a sense, getting stuck. The same holds true for wet, cold conditions in parts of the eastern U.S. Both extremes are related to a wavier and slower jet stream, a current of air that travels around the globe in Earth’s atmosphere. I like to think of it as a ribbon with peaks and valleys. As the jet stream slows, the peaks rise taller and the valleys sink deeper.

If you would like to see the wavy pattern of the jet stream on a map, take a look at this one on Guy Walton’s blog, which, by the way, is a wonderful resource for learning more about climate science, weather events and related stories from around the globe.

The jet stream plays an important role in influencing weather patterns, and humans are altering the way it behaves by warming the planet. And, unfortunately, scientists predict that these unfamiliar and often destructive weather patterns will increase as temperatures rise. I like what Robinson Meyer wrote about forest fires and climate change at The Atlantic:

“Forest fires might be seen as the particularly horrific edge of a sword that is coming for us all.”

Other factors and preparing for future fires

But humans are also building homes too close to forests and other natural landscapes without creating sufficient fire breaks. And it’s also true that in the past, we’ve been too quick to suppress forest fires, allowing dry underbrush to accumulate.

Professor of fire science at the University of Idaho and former wildland firefighter Crystal Kolden describes in an opinion piece at The New York Times how some communities across the country, such as Montecito, California; San Diego, California and parts of Colorado, have taken steps to reduce property damage and loss of life caused by catastrophic fires. And it’s no surprise that what has worked best is a multi-level approach. Creating green space between populated areas and wildlands, removing or thinning brush that grows near homes and changing the types of building materials used in the housing industry are just a few examples of how communities can create defensible spaces.

Interestingly, Pepperdine University’s main campus, located in Malibu, California, did not evacuate students during the Woolsey Fire. I was horrified by this at first but soon learned that the university has hardened campus facilities to withstand the cyclical fires that sweep through the Malibu Hills. Instead of evacuating, some students and staff sheltered in place. Although I imagine the situation was tense, at least the students didn’t risk getting trapped on clogged roads as the fire inched closer. You can read the full story about the Woolsey Fire and Pepperdine University’s fire-resistant campus in this riveting piece by Allisa Walker at Curbed. Can you imagine being the parent of one of those students? I’m glad everyone is safe and sound.

Interview with Michael Mann at PBS

Except for the PBS interview with Michael Mann, below, that’s all for today. Though don’t be surprised if you hear from me in the near future! I aim to post these more often while keeping the content brief and highly focused. Until next time, solastalgia.

—Laura

Please note: My editor took off for the hills and hasn't been seen for years. If you're a journalist or scientist and find mistakes in these summaries, please reach out through the contact form in the menu at the bottom of this page. I don't mind being corrected at all. Thanks!