Hell in Paradise: Why the Camp Fire was the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in modern history

fires Paradise

The Camp Fire was started by downed power lines, spread from a forest, and then became a structure-to-structure urban fire in which houses burned but many trees did not.

I grew up in southern California on the edge of the San Fernando Valley. Fires, usually fueled by Santa Ana winds on dry grasses in the hills, were a fact of life. I evacuated. I ran the pump to squirt water from the pool onto the roof. I helped neighbors on the edge of the hills water their roofs. Back in those days, in the 1970s, fires over 100,000 acres (~150 square miles) were rare. The worst fires destroyed 200 to 300 homes. Rarely, someone died. That was then.

fires infographic

Infographic prepared in 2013, before most of the recent mega-fires.

Twelve years ago, four researchers examined a comprehensive database of all large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970. They detected a signal and concluded that “large wildlife activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s.” Looking at weather data and land-use history, they concluded the driving factor was “increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt”. Forest management, on the other hand, had “relatively little effect”. Published in the journal Science in 2006, they had found the “force multiplier” that climate change brings to the West. We all knew that forests had been mismanaged for nearly a century, and that too many homes and towns had been built up against wildlands.  But now there was a new factor driving fires—longer hotter drier summers. If you’re looking for numbers, the data show that fires really ramped up in 1987.  The so-called “force multiplier” of climate change was big—about 3 or 4. That is, wildfire frequency was triple in dry years when compared to moderate years, and quadruple that in wet years. Ominously, they noted the effect was non-linear, meaning that, in warmer years, fires really increased. Thus, the multiplier was not just a constant number—it increased with temperature and lack of rain. The Berkeley Tunnel fire, which was exceptional because it killed 24 people trying to evacuate and was the first fire in California history to burn over a thousand homes (it actually burned over 2,000 homes), occurred in 1991.

In the twelve years since the Science article, mega-fires, in terms of acres burned, structures destroyed, and people killed, have gone off the charts—literally. When it comes to fires that burn more than 200,000 acres (~300 square miles), destroy more than a thousand homes, and kill dozens, if not hundreds of people, climate change is not really a “force multiplier”, it’s an on-off switch. Such fires were very rare or non-existent before the year 2000. Now, they appear to be annual.

CA fires 2b

We’ve crossed a threshold, tripped a wire.  In 2017, after the astounding loss of 6,000 homes in Santa Rosa, we hoped that was an outlier, a blip in the data. A few months later, in December, when fires were previously unheard of, the Thomas Fire became the largest in state history. Barely six months later, the Carr Fire made Redding “the new Santa Rosa”. After that fire I posted a chart showing that 16 of the state’s largest 20 fires had all occurred in the past 20 years. We had a reached a “new abnormal”. Then, a few months after that, in November, when by all historical standards the fire season should be over, the Camp Fire literally wiped out the entire town of Paradise, population 26,000. Hospitals, high schools, stores, and houses, all gone. The death toll is without historical precedent. While that was burning, the Woolsey Fire became the largest and most destructive fire in the history of the Los Angeles area. At the present rate, next year the Paradise inferno will be surpassed by some hell unimaginable.

CA fires 2a

When I say the Camp Fire is the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in modern history, I’m not counting hurricanes. Hurricanes, even large hurricanes, have always occurred and always will. A Category 5 hurricane striking a major city is an inevitability. Yes, climate change has made hurricanes larger and more numerous, thus increasing the risk, but nothing like the change we’ve seen with fires in the West. Thus, attributing any one hurricane to climate change is like attributing a single specific cancer case to an environmental contaminant causing a cluster of cases.

CA fires 2c

When I say the Camp Fire was caused by climate change, I’m not saying that future destructive fires are inevitable. The fires will come, but we can do things to mitigate the

science-fires-1

Graphic from fivethirtyeight.com

destructive aspects. A full post-mortem on the Camp Fire and other recent mega-fires is of course required. Such analysis should look beyond the political rhetoric of Trump, exclusively blaming management practices in national forests. Most of these fires in these graphs, spreading across dry grass and oak woodland, had nothing to do with forests. Furthermore, in the face of massive tree death from drought, simply removing dead trees from forests has serious feasibility limitations. To quote a forest fire expert colleague, “Yes, fuels reduction is needed same as 30 years ago, but the mills are all full from the tree mortality supply, much of the fuels are not merchantable, and we are not going to cut our way out of longer fire seasons and deadly MegaFires.”

In the short run, we can’t stop the changing climate, the record low humidity and record high dry vegetation, or the longer summers. We can’t shorten the fire season, now 80 days longer than in 1970s. But we can modify power lines, conduct preventative burns, revise urban fire perimeter requirements, and re-evaluate evacuation routes. Those things won’t turn off the switch we’ve triggered, but they might at least save some homes and lives in the coming years.

CalFiredamage

The CalFire damage inspection map of Paradise. The latest interactive map can be found here

The 2018 flight of the Buff-breasted Sandpipers: Data from the West Coast

Buff-breasted Sandpipers breed on the Arctic tundra from western Alaska, across northern Canada, to Baffin Island. They winter eight thousand miles to the south, on the grasslands of the River Plate Basin in Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Their primary migration corridor is east of the Rockies, through the central United States. A secondary route is along the East Coast. They are always rare in fall migration along the West Coast, with four to fourteen individuals counted each fall between 2014 and 2017. In spring, they are almost unheard of (there is one record in eBird from Arcata, California in May, 1980).

Fall migration in 2018 was exceptional on the West Coast, with sixty-five individuals reported, five to ten times the norm. The figure below summarizes eBird data from the past five years in southern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California.

CLICK TO ENLARGE.

BBSA

A few interesting points:

  • While fall migration generally spans from mid-August thru late September, the timing of records within that period are not strongly correlated with latitude.  That is, it does not appear that birds are moving from north to south through the period. Each season’s latest records, from mid or late September, may come from British Columbia or Washington as easily as from southern California. That said, in 2018, the latest records are indeed from southern California. Moreover, the very few October records over the years (not included in the graph) are from southern California.
  • They are most reliable in the Pacific Northwest, only reaching California in years of relative abundance, such as 2018. The only location with records from every year is Salmon Arm Bay of Shuswap Lake, in the interior of British Columbia. Other sites, with records in all but one year, are Boundary Bay, British Columbia, and the south coast of Washington (e.g. Ocean Shores, Gray’s Harbor vicinity).
  • The vast majority of records are of single individuals. The only time more than four birds were documented together during these years was in 2018, with five birds at once at Sauvie Island, Oregon, and a remarkable thirteen at Boundary Bay.
  • In the years 2014-2017, Buff-breasted Sandpipers first appeared between August 15 and 19. In 2018, they did not appear until August 23, and most were relatively later than birds in previous years.
  • In 2018, there were several records from offshore California: one from the Farallons, two from San Clemente Island, and two birds seen together from a pelagic trip one hundred miles off southern California. These were all relatively early in migration, between August 25 and September 1. In contrast, most 2018 records from the Oregon coast were from the first week of September.

 

 

California apocalypse again: Large wildfires increasing with climate change

smoke

Sunset from the Central Valley, looking toward the Coast Range through the smoke of a million trees.

As I write this, helicopters are passing overhead in a dim gray-brown sky. The sun is a pink orb over the western horizon. It is 97 degrees at 7pm. The people of California sit like frogs in a slowly boiling pot.

Average temperature for July and August, here in Davis, is 93 degrees. But in the past 34 days, it was only below that six times. July 2018 was the hottest month in the history of the state.

Such climate change was predicted, with great accuracy, by both oil companies and government scientists back in the 1980s, and even earlier.  The consequences of this included more extreme weather, more drought, shorter rainy seasons, earlier snow melt, longer fire seasons, and larger fires. All that is coming to pass in such dramatic fashion that new records are set each year.

[CLICK TO ENLARGE GRAPHS]

Note: There were more mega-fires in November, 2018, shortly after I wrote this. These graphs are updated in a more recent blog post “Hell in Paradise: Why the Camp Fire was the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in modern history”

CA fires1In 1988, scientists were excited– and alarmed– to see the first indications of a warming climate. Now, graphs illustrating climate change need no statistical analysis. They are obvious to a child, ramping steeply up with each passing year.

CA fires2

A conservative talking point seems to be that this dramatic increase in fires is not due to climate change, but to poor forest management. While this has been an issue for over a hundred years, this question was the prime focus of Westerling et al 2006 in Science, where he concluded that longer hotter summers and shorter drier winters were indeed to blame. There were increased fires even in areas without poor management– or any management at all. Where there has been poor forest management, climate warming has acted as a “force multiplier” to make fires even worse. One could only imagine how easy it would be to write that paper now, twelve years later, with plenty of new eye-popping data points.  Thirteen of California’s 20 largest fires have occurred since Westerling sent his paper to the publisher.

Perhaps the best illustration of the combined effect of poor forest management and climate change comes from this 14-minute Ted talk given by Paul Hessburg in 2017.

Using a useful forest diagram, he explains how Native Americans regularly burned underbrush and maintained an open forest/meadow ecosystem that effectively prevented large wildfires. In the late 1800s, with the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, the advent of cattle that ate the grass, and the US Forest Service suppressing fires and logging the largest trees, our forests changed from a mosaic of tough old trees surrounded by natural fire breaks to a solid crop of young growth. Add drought, heat, and an ignition source, and you see the results above.

CA fires3

The solution, regardless of how much you attribute large fires to climate change or management, is the same. We need to re-create the balance of the past thru the protection of large trees and prescribed burns. We need to create meadows and healthy forests. Some Native communities in northern California are planning to do this.

This all assumes that we get enough rain in winter and cool temps in summer to allow re-growth. Otherwise, the current fires may be transforming California’s mountain habitats into something resembling the mountains of Nevada and Arizona in the span of a decade.

Birders detect dramatic changes as Davis climate warms

[A version of this was originally published in the Davis Enterprise.]

In 2002, the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured a silhouetted man standing on frosty mauve ice and staring through binoculars into a rosy polar sky. The title read, davis1“Watching the World Melt Away: The future as seen by a lonely scientist at the end of the earth.” The article was about seabird biologist George Divoky and his decades of work studying the black guillemot, a high arctic seabird, on Cooper Island off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. The guillemots were struggling to feed their chicks. Their preferred food, Arctic cod, lived at the edge of the sea ice. In the past, this was five miles from the island. Now it was thirty. Divoky, moreover, found himself sharing his tiny island with several hungry polar bears stranded by the vast expanse of open water. At the time, the story was one of the first concrete examples of climate change impacting an ecosystem in way that was easily seen and understood.

Sac Valley winter avg temps SH

Sixteen years later, birders in Yolo County are now witnessing those kinds of changes at our latitude. Winters are suddenly filled with species previously associated with warmer climates to the south, while some other winter visitors no longer come this far south. In the summer, new species are arriving from more arid regions and have started nesting locally.

0V2A9850

Orchard Oriole in Davis, December 2017

A shift of a few degrees may not seem like much, but a winter above freezing makes autumn fruit and berries available longer, resulting in a plentiful food supply. This past December, birders were astounded to find eight species of warblers and three species of orioles in the county at once. Normal would be three and zero, respectively. These birds are neotropical migrants, spending the summer nesting in the northern United States and Canada, and wintering in Southern California, Mexico, or Central and South America. In the last few years, Cassin’s vireos, black-throated gray warblers, and blue-gray gnatcatchers have been present at many locations throughout the cold months. It is now possible to find hooded orioles and western tanagers year-round. Last winter, rarities like orchard oriole, northern waterthrush, and palm warbler turned up and stayed for weeks or months. The prevalence of unusual over-wintering migrants has enabled birders to rack up quite a winter list. Holly Coates shattered previous “big year” records by tallying 200 species in Yolo County by March 20 this year.

neotrop migrants graphThe Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count, an annual effort to count all the birds in a 15-mile diameter circle near Winters on one day each December, has tracked winter bird populations since 1971. In recent years, the number of neotropical migrants found on the count has swelled. These include warbling vireo and Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers, in addition to the species mentioned above. Perhaps the most dramatic shift in the count data has been with the turkey vulture. With the absence of tule fog, these birds, which rely on warm thermals to give them some lift, have gone from sparse, rarely more than 15 birds on a count through 1985, to over 150 individuals per count in each of the past eight years.

turkey vulture graphA warming climate is expected to create more increases than decreases in bird life in Yolo County. This is because species diversity is greatest in the tropics. As bird ranges shift north, we expect to see more arrivals than departures. Among the departures are some northern species that are growing scarcer in winter. Most notable is rough-legged hawk, a tundra species that journey south to agricultural areas to eat rodents in winter. They have, however, become decidedly hard to find in recent years, perhaps finding the Willamette Valley and other more northern valleys suitable for their wintering grounds. Another species to watch is the beautiful cedar waxwing, which descend on fruits and berries in the winter months. The more they can find food in the north, the less likely they will come this far south.  They are erratic from year to year, however, so it is too early to identify a trend.

Though less dramatic, our hotter summers have brought some changes as well. Great-tailed grackles have expanded up the Central Valley from the Salton Sea. Say’s phoebes, which previously nested only south of the Delta in the Central Valley, moved into Napa and Solano Counties in 2014. Perhaps they are focusing on certain species of insects. This spring, Michael Perrone found them nesting in Davis and Joan Humphrey discovered them feeding young in Woodland, representing first nesting records for the county.

The Yolo Audubon Society is currently revising its Checklist of the Birds of Yolo County, a useful little booklet that will list all 369 species recorded in the county, each with a bar chart showing their abundance through the year. The last version, published in 2004, had a special section called “Recent Changes” highlighting the wetland restoration projects at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area and Davis Wetlands. In the coming 2018 version, the Recent Changes section will focus on two big issues: the expansion of orchards and our changing climate. Perrone, author of that section, states that “winters have become milder. In particular, prolonged periods of cold, all-day tule fog have ceased, giving way to sunnier weather.” Davis birders may not be standing on the edge of the continent looking at retreating sea ice, but nevertheless, in the last few years they have witnessed dramatic changes in bird distributions. A look at the graphs, moreover, suggests these changes began before that article about Alaska was published.