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The age of ‘megafires’ in California is here

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Megafires burn longer, hotter, and more expansively

Flames from the Woolsey Fire approach a house in Malibu on November 9.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

California has entered the era of the “megafire.”

Exemplified by the catastrophic Camp Fire that has killed 48 people and continues to burn in Northern California, megafires burn longer, hotter, and more expansively than wildfires of years past, breaking records for destructiveness and deaths.

The Thomas Fire, for example, was the largest fire in California history when it torched 281,893 acres in late 2017, a record toppled by the Mendocino Complex Fire when it burned 459,102 acres in the summer of 2018.

“This notion of seeing increased wildfires is not manifesting through a larger number [of fires], it’s manifesting in the changes in the character of the fire,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist specializing in the “megafire” phenomenon.

The number of fires Cal Fire has responded to since January—7,000—is fairly average, but the size and ferocity is astonishing. So far in 2018, those fires have scorched an unprecedented 1.3 million acres—five times the five-year average.

And that’s not including the Woolsey Fire, which erupted last week, charring nearly 100,000 acres, or 150 square miles, across the beaches of Los Angeles and hills of Ventura County.

The remains of a beachside home in Point Dume.
AFP/Getty Images

The death toll across the state stands at 51, and is still rising.

“We just ended the hottest summer on record,” said Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby, shortly after the blaze crossed into Malibu. “We have fuels that are in a critical drought state right now. Our firefighters have been facing some extreme, tough fire conditions that they’ve said they’ve never seen in their lives.”

Scientists and experts now can identify four major factors contributing at varying degrees to California’s megafires: climate change, development in fire-prone areas, past fire suppression techniques, and the Santa Ana winds.

Earlier this week, Swain took to Twitter to urge people to consider the whole picture when it comes to California’s worsening fire seasons. In an impassioned thread, he explains how a popular question—”Did climate change cause X extreme event?”—is actually poorly framed, and therefore misleading.

“It misses the most essential point,” he writes. “All disasters are compound events, [with] many contributing factors. But sometimes, climate can play a starring role.”

That “starring role” has had extensive ramifications for the nature of dry season, causing it to last longer as the first rains of the winter are pushed back further into the end of the year.

Some experts have called this dry season California’s “new normal.” Vets like Cal Fire’s Scott McLean have already adjusted to seeing the grasses covering the rolling hills brown earlier and earlier each year.

“It’s not new anymore. We’re there,” McLean tells Curbed. “We don’t even call it a fire season anymore.”

Still, while it’s true that California has always been prone to fire, the link between climate change and more intense fires is inextricable.

“Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming,” Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory told the New York Times.

It’s not just rising temperatures. Climate change has altered the way rainy and dry seasons alternate, exacerbating conditions for fire, even if drought is not an issue. This means sudden transitions back and forth from really wet years to really dry years, what Swain calls “climate whiplash”—which characterizes the swing from wet 2017 to dry 2018.

Case in point: the role that rain had to play in the high number of acres burned in 2017.

High levels of precipitation last winter resulted in mass growth of “fuel”—grasses, shrubs, trees, basically anything flammable—across the state. That fuel caught fire, driving up the number of acres that burned.

The type and severity of fires that burn during the dry season “depends on which part of the state we’re talking about, and which type of vegetation,” according to Swain.

In the mountains, low precipitation levels mean high wildfire risk. But in the case of scrubland and chaparral, in lower elevations, it’s the wet winters that are dangerous because increased rainfall results in more brush growth—which is why we see those six-digit figures for acreage burned by June of this year.

Overall, LA had a drier winter this year than last. That means less fuel grew to burn.

But in Southern California, drought-like conditions thanks to global warming, paired with a longer fire season has proven just as dangerous as an excess of fuel.

As the climate changes, less rain will fall on Southern California in autumn and spring. That means a longer period of dryness that will potentially overlap with fall’s notorious Santa Ana winds, a combination that fueled last year’s Thomas Fire—which burned for six months, destroying more than 1,300 structures and killing 22 people in the ensuing mudslides.

Those conditions also fanned the Creek Fire in the foothills of Angeles National Forest in January.

And they’re the same conditions that caused the Woolsey and Hill fires this month.

Coupled with increased development in high-fuel areas due to rising housing costs, these changes in California’s climate have drastically increased wildfire risk across the state.

“In pretty much every single way, a perfect recipe for fire is just kind of written in California,” Williams said. “Nature creates the perfect conditions for fire, as long as people are there to start the fires. But then climate change, in a few different ways, seems to also load the dice toward more fire in the future.”

Californians are expanding into more high-risk areas known as the wildland-urban interface. These are areas that are often desirable because of their scenic views and picturesque vegetation, and developers and regulators are being forced to reconsider what building in these fire-prone zones means. Especially since the mix of wilderness and urban lands makes fires harder to fight.

A Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter makes a water drop on the Skirball Fire, which swept through Bel Air last year.

“It’s not just put a line on the ground and the fire is contained,” Jonathan Cox, Cal Fire’s battalion chief, told the Washington Post. “You have essentially a jigsaw puzzle of fire and homes and infrastructure, all mixed together, and then you add in topographical features like slope and hills and trees.”

After last year’s disasters, Sacramento was quick to respond.

The governor approved more than $1 billion to prevent and prepare for wildfires this season, $100 million of which went to buying a new fleet of helicopters. Controlled burns were scheduled across the state, and Cal Fire pushed up staffing by two weeks.

Soon, Wireless Emergency Alerts, known as WEAs, will be enhanced with geotargeting and informational hotlinks making them more effective for residents of targeted areas.

It’s important that Cal Fire and other agencies are as prepared as possible to fight and prevent wildfires, but McLean stresses that it’s also the public’s responsibility to educate themselves.

“It’s a 360 degree thing,” he said. “We’re still in the same conditions as last year, so we just need to all work together.”

That goes for policymakers and scientists as well. It’s essential to start having more nuanced and more public conversations on societal risk, because it’s a problem that affects us all.

“I grew up in California,” Swain wrote on Twitter. “My family & friends live there. And after last few years, almost everyone has #wildfire story to tell. For some, it’s struggling to breathe in smoke-choked air. For others, it’s nightmarish escape from walls of flame in darkness of night.”

Luckily, from an urban planning perspective, there’s a lot that can be done. Building cities to accommodate the risk of these fires, which are here to stay, will go a long way to reduce the devastation the fires cause.

While some may balk at the high price point of some of these solutions—from building units with less flammable materials to designing communities with ingress and egress routes—they should keep in mind that they’re only expensive if you look at them in isolation.

“This will happen again unless we address the risk,” warned Swain. “Even though the fixes seem expensive, the alternative is even more unthinkable.”