The areas of California that burn every year are in or near pine forests. Pine trees produce resin and are highly flammable. Pine forests can catch fire, but the massive fires we see today are something completely new. What changed, and when did it change?*
California has tracked big fires since the 1930’s. Mega-fire used to happen once every 20 or 30 years. But in the last decade, mega-fires have become an annual event. This year’s fire in Mendocino is the largest in California’s history, breaking last year’s record for the biggest fire. In every way, California’s mega-fire problem is accelerating.
Some time ago Bill Nye (the science guy) said that the term “climate change” may be confusing climate deniers. “So what if it is 100 degrees today? There were hundred degree days before. It just means that it’s hot, not that something new happened!” Of all of the unprecedented things that have happened in California, the most unprecedented is how fast changes are happening. Changing from a stable environment to an annual conflagration in a single lifetime has never happened before. Period.
If this was a criminal case of arson, we would like up all of the likely suspects and see if any are lacking an alibi. Which suspect could have committed the crime, was able to do so, and was in the vicinity when the crime occurred? As it happens, only one suspect could be responsible for the mega-fires. The criminal is… everyone! More specifically the perpetrator is, people. A lot of people. As the frequency and intensity of fires increased, so too did population. Without people, you can have a fire, but it would require a natural event to create the spark and make it spread. Consider this
A Spark: In nature, forest fires are usually created by a bolt of lightning. But there is only a small window of time between the height of the dry season where fires are easy to set, and the start of the rainy season where you get a lot of lightning storms. Years, even decades, can go by before all of the necessary conditions line up to start a mega-fire.
The Spread: In addition to pine trees and resin, a pine forest also has a lot of deadwood… the dry kindling that allows a fire to grow and spread. The floor of the forest is littered with dead leaves, fallen branches, trees that died or fell over in a wind storm. Decomposition, small fires, and other natural processes keep the deadwood at a minimum. But when the deadwood piles up, small fires can turn into mega-fires.
Add People: Millions of people have moved next to pine forests and parks, and modern civilization creates a lot of sparks. Campfires, a discarded cigarette, hot car exhausts, power tools, even a steel hammer hitting a rock. Instead of one spark at exactly the right time, there are now millions of sparks and thousands of small fires. Because so many people now live next to these burn areas, fire departments must chase every small fire and prevent mega-fire outbreaks. This disrupts the natural cycle that kept the amount of deadwood under control. The “human activity” of firefighters has unintentionally made mega-fires worse!
Long Drought: In some places, like the water reservoir of Lake Shasta, the water levels have dropped by over 100 feet. While there are global climate issues that have contributed to California’s long drought, there are two huge local issues. First, the millions of residents are draining the water, especially in southern California where there is less rain. Second, California has a massive agricultural industry, that consumes hundreds of billions of gallons of water every year. California’s predominant form or irrigation is field flooding, the least efficient way to water fields.
Really Crazy: the fires and drought are a very eloquent way for the environment to signal that it is stressed and can’t take much more. Californians, however, seem completely deaf to these signals. So, they built 500 water caverns and underwater tunnels to shift 1.5 billion foot acres (a foot acre is 325,000 gallons) of water from Northern California to Southern California. This guarantees that the entire state has a water shortage.
Human Activity: Is that enough human activity for you? Even if there were no “global” factors, California alone is doing enough to destroy their environment all on their own. Perhaps we shouldn’t say that human activity is the cause of climate change. It might be more accurate to say that climate change is caused by not enough human activity. Local governments should be far more active in stopping the building of new houses near wildfire areas. Forestry and fire departments could do more to clear forests of deadwood, and even cut down some trees to create significant fire breaks. Switching to drip irrigation (tubes with pinholes are paced around fields to water crop roots) could cut water requirements by 75% and increase crop yields by 15%. The list goes on and on.
The state of California has made some incredibly shortsighted and irresponsible decisions, that destroyed homes, caused billions of dollars of damage, and kills residents and firefighters every year. But California is not alone. The horrific damage to Houston (Ted Cruz’s constituents) was largely due to their decision to sell off and develop the wetlands that surround Houston, and pave over lands within Houston. Together, these changes forced floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey into their downtown. Even after their own city planning department told city managers that this would happen. Florida and Louisiana have done likewise, leading to the flooding of New Orleans a few years ago and the possible drowning of Maimi in the coming years.
Changes in global climate patterns are complex and not always obvious. It can require quite a bit of math to understand how increased sales of cars in China is impacting the almond harvest in California. But it’s a lot easier to understand why forests are dry after the locals drink all the water. If we instead focus on the local causes of climate disasters it’s a lot easier to understand how human beings are causing irreparable harm to the environment and how there is a real, measurable and often financial cost to that damage. Now… can one of you please explain this to Ted Cruz?