A study just out in the journal Geophysical Research Letters confirms what we’ve all noticed and what climate models predict: California’s wet season is shortening, and fire season is lengthening, (by 75-days in the Sierra, according to Cal Fire).
Longer fire seasons coupled with steadily rising temperatures is a key reason we now regularly suffer deadly wildfires that destroy whole communities. How many of us today dread the arrival of summer, fearing weeks of choking smoke, knowing any day or night we might have to evacuate, might lose everything we hold dear.
Since 2017, 40,000 structures, mostly homes, were consumed by wildfire in the state. Seventeen of California’s 20 largest fires have occurred since 2000. And conditions this year seem ripe for more of the same. Fuel moisture (the water content of vegetation) is at record lows in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Despite recent rains, the state Water Resources Department says the 2020-2021 drought is now the third worst recorded. Cal Fire responded to about 20 percent more fires between Jan. 1 and April 11 this year than in the same period in 2020 – by far California’s worst fire year.
State lawmakers just approved spending $536 million to reduce fuel loads (the amount of vegetation on the land) and boost fire-fighting capabilities. That’s good, but it won’t spare us. Today’s fire seasons are harbingers of worse seasons to come because the temperatures won’t stop rising and our wet season is expected to continue to shrink.
Not until we quit adding heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The physics is simple and accepted by all who assess the situation with an open mind: CO2 and a handful of other molecules keep the planet warm. Adding more of them leads to more warming. Earlier this month CO2 readings reached almost 420 parts per million, more than 40 percent greater than at any time in several million years. The rise in CO2 is mainly from burning fossil fuels.
From Redding to Portola, and Magalia to Chester, dozens of North State communities, built mostly in decades when megafires were extremely rare, are sitting ducks today. If you think you are safe, consider my bucolic little town, Paradise. An unstoppable 2018 inferno consumed almost 19,000 buildings and killed 85 of my neighbors in mere hours. I say this not to alarm, but because we must recognize the dangers we face and act. We must demand that our local, state and national leaders begin to lead on this issue.
A good start on the national level is the just introduced HR 2307. It would put a modest, gradually increasing fee on the carbon content of fossil fuels and return the money to all Americans on an equal basis. It is a market-based strategy that creates the economic incentive to shift from fossil fuels while buffering the individual from rising costs.
Of itself it will not restore our rainy seasons or our homes, but it is among the most effective strategies we can take to slow and eventually stop the ever-rising temperatures contributing to these new megafires.