Becoming Arizona: How climate change is transforming California thru fire

When climatologists predicted that Sacramento would have Phoenix’s weather by 2100, and Portland would have Sacramento’s, they didn’t explain the ecological implications nor the process. Yet it’s apparent that an awful lot of trees need to disappear for the Sierra to look like the rock, grass, and cacti that make up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix.

Camelback Mountain near Phoenix

A new “new normal” every year

This ecological transformation, the likes of which would normally take a thousand years even during a rapid warming event, is happening, driven by rapid climate change. All those trees are flying away in the form of ashes and smoke.

The process, in human and ecological terms, is brutal. Californians experience a new “new normal” each year, each one stunning in its own right. In 2017 we were shocked when 6,000 homes burned in Santa Rosa, killing dozens as people fled in their bathrobes. Despite decades of fires in suburban California, there had never been anything of that magnitude. Before the year was out, the Thomas fire became the largest in state history as it burned thru Christmas and New Year. The next summer, the Carr fire stunned us with an EF-3 firenado that generated 140 mph winds. A few months later, the past was eclipsed when the entire town of Paradise burned, killing 85 people. That may be the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in history.  

2020

After a reprieve in 2019, we arrive at 2020, where acreage burned has exceeded two million and three million for the first time. We keep having to adjust our vertical axes to make room for each new year. Five fires burning at the same time in 2020 qualified for the top 20 largest fires in the history of the state. Three of those, still burning as a write, are first, second, and fourth on the list.

California under smoke, September 9, 2020.

Each year has its macabre highlights. This year, over 300 people were rescued by military helicopters, many at night high in the Sierra. For the first time ever, all 18 national forests were completely closed to the public. The National Weather Service had to create a firenado warning. A dystopian pall of smoke created hazardous air from California to Canada for weeks, forcing people into their homes with all windows shut. And my hometown, Woodland Hills, hit 121 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County.  

In 2019, the media reported that Oregon firefighters make an annual trek to California to provide mutual aid. In 2020, that changed. A quarter of the west slope of the Cascades from Portland to Medford appears to be on fire. One out of eight Oregonians are evacuating. The media is filled with horrific stories of grandmothers and teenagers burned alive while the father asks a badly burned woman along a roadside if he’s seen his wife. “I am your wife,” she responds.

Eugene, Oregon on the morning of September 8, 2020.

The process

We have heard for years that, with longer and hotter summers and declining snowpack, fire season has grown by months. In 2006, Westerling predicted such an increase in fires that the forests of the western US would become net carbon emitters. The US Forest Service now plans for fire year-round.

A series of academic analyses lays out the factors and processes of Arizonification. Decreased summer rains, as well as warmer winter and spring temperatures, are creating dry and stressed trees. But that’s not all. Summers that have become 1.4C (2.5F) warmer have led to an exponential increase in atmospheric vapor pressure deficit (VPD). It’s getting drier and, more importantly, vegetation is getting drier. This leads to big fires. Williams et al (2019) noted, “The ability of dry fuels to promote large fires is nonlinear, which has allowed warming to become increasingly impactful.” The Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, occurred during some of the lowest vegetation moisture ever recorded. Add to that hot dry winds and vulnerable PG&E transmission lines, and the Paradise disaster looks predictable.

Northern California, being at western North America’s southern edge of the low elevation temperate forests, is especially at risk. As documented in the Verdugo Mountains near Los Angeles, high fire frequency converts forest and chapparal to weeds and rocks. That southern edge is pushing north. Forests are migrating north; so are deserts. (So are bird populations.)

To summarize, slightly warming temperatures, even in winter and spring, and less summer rain lead to an exponential increase in dry vegetation, which leads to an exponential increase in large fires, which leads a conversion of habitat from forest and chaparral to the grass and rock-dominated landscapes of arid desert mountain ranges. Sacramento becomes Phoenix. The Sierra and Coast Ranges become Camelback Mountain.

The future

Nearly the entire east side of the northern Coast Ranges have burned since 2018. Much of the southern Sierra forests died during the recent drought; most of those have yet to burn.

Arizona State University fire historian Prof. Stephen Pyne calls this a new epoch, the Pyrocene. “The contours of such an epoch,” he writes, “are already becoming visible through the smoke. If you doubt it, just ask California.”

Abatzoglou and Williams (2016) conclude, “anthropogenic climate change has emerged as a driver of increased forest fire activity and should continue to do so while fuels are not limiting.” Williams et al repeat this, “Given the exponential response of California burned area to aridity, the influence of anthropogenic warming on wildfire activity over the next few decades will likely be larger than the observed influence thus far where fuel abundance is not limiting.”

In layman’s terms, it’s going to get worse until there’s nothing left to burn.

The annual area burned in California has increased fivefold from 1972 to 2018 (Williams et al 2019). Several individual fires in 2020 exceed the average from 1987-2005. The point shown here for 2020 is still increasing.

Academic papers

Here is a partial list of recent research on the increase of fires in California and the western US.

Abatzoglou and Williams (2016). Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests. PNAS 113 (42) 11770-11775.

Goss et al (2020). Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California. Environmental Research Letters 15(9).

Haidinger and Keeley (1993). Role of hire fire frequency in destruction of mixed chaparral. Madrono 40(3): 141-147.

Holden et al (2018). Decreasing fire season precipitation increased recent western US forest wildfire activity. PNAS 115 (36) E8349-E8357.

Kitzberger et al (2017). Direct and indirect climate controls predict heterogeneous early-mid 21st century wildfire burned area across western and boreal North America. PLOS One.

Lareau et al (2018). The Carr Fire Vortex: A Case of Pyrotornadogenesis? Geophysical Research Letters 45(23).

Seager et al (2014). Climatology, variability and trends in United States 2 vapor pressure deficit, an important fire-related 3 meteorological quantity.

Swain (2020). Increasingly extreme autumn wildfire conditions in California due to climate change. Weather West Blog (related to Goss et al 2020 above).

Syphard et al (2019). The relative influence of climate and housing development on current and projected future fire patterns and structure loss across three California landscapes. Global Environmental Change 56: 41-55.

Williams et al (2019). Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California. Earth’s Future 7(8): 892-910

Westerling et al (2006). Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity. Science 313(5789): 940-943.

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

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.