(this is an edited & updated version of a diary published on DailyKos)
As a California native with a hillside, I know the rules of fire.
* Clear your brush by June 1.
* Watch other states burn in July and August. California firefighters will help them — it’s great experience for October.
* Don’t worry until the Santa Ana winds blow in mid October…and then, worry a lot. Make lists in your head: family photos, computer hard drive, pet food, handmade quilts, important papers, medicines, kids’ comfort items. Pace around your house and realize that all else is just stuff. Plan your route.
* Cheer the burly young men with charred faces and heavy gear. When they stagger into the Jack in the Box fresh from the latest Malibu fire, don’t just bring them water, buy their meals. Drop off home-baked cookies at the fire station. Hang a banner to thank them for saving your community.
I’ve seen the glow of fires 10 miles away from my hillside, and I’ve watched burning embers dance above a firefighters’ command post and settle on that same hill. I’ve packed the essentials at 3 AM while the kids race their bikes past the Halloween-decorated lawns. I know that October is fire season.
This year, Los Angeles is burning in August, and it’s unnatural.
Our fires are different from those in other Western states. The fires of Wyoming, Colorado, and Arizona start with lightning strikes in semi-arid mountains. Ours start with the winds of October and November. I call it “Chapstick and nosebleed weather,” but Raymond Chandler described it better:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.
35,000 42,500 acres have burned in an out of control fire 19 miles long known as the Station fire, burning northeast of Los Angeles. So far, three to five homes have burned, while 10,000 12,000 more are threatened. Separately, fires burn in Riverside and San Diego Counties, Yosemite National Park, near Pinnacles National Monument in inland Monterey County, and in Auburn near Sacramento.
All this with no wind. We’ve had high temperatures, but without Santa Anas these fires should not exist. The winds start many wildfires — they down power lines, causing electrical sparks to arc out of control. At a bare minimum, the winds take sparks from innocuous sources — a welder, a weed-whacker, a cigarette butt — and blow them up. To analogize this for East Coast folks, fires without wind are like snowstorms without clouds.
Record-setting wildfires are resulting from the rising temperatures and related reductions in spring snowpack and soil moisture, according to the US Global Change Research Project:
How climate change will affect fire in the Southwest varies according to location. In general, total area burned is projected to increase. How this plays out at individual locations, however, depends on regional changes in temperature and precipitation, as well as on whether fire in the area is currently limited by fuel availability or by rainfall. For example, fires in wetter, forested areas are expected to increase in frequency, while areas where fire is limited by the availability of fine fuels experience decreases. Climate changes could also create subtle shifts in fire behavior, allowing more “runaway fires” – fires that are thought to have been brought under control, but then rekindle. The magnitude of fire damages, in terms of economic impacts as well as direct endangerment, also increases as urban development increasingly impinges on forested areas.
Angelenos already joke that fire season now runs from July 1 to June 30. In the last two years, we’ve had brushfires in February, during what’s supposed to be the rainy season, and in May, at the end of what’s supposed to be the rainy season when the plants are supposed to be plump with stored water.
To make matters worse, California budget cuts are reducing firefighters’ ability to do their job. In Los Angeles, the mayor of the city is decimating city fire stations, and has ordered city firefighters not to intervene in fires outside the city. Vendors refuse to do business with CalFire during state budget crises. State politics only exacerbate the larger issues of megadrought combined with climate change.
California’s vulnerability to fires is not going to get any better. Before Steven Chu became Secretary of Energy, he predicted that even the most optimistic climate models for the second half of this century suggest that 30 to 70 percent of the snowpack will disappear. “There’s a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster,” Chu said, “and that’s in the best scenario.” The Southwest region is prone to mega-droughts lasting decades, and California is generally considered to have entered one beginning 1999.
In the short term, the “we’ve got ours” selfishness is best exemplified by the La Canada Country Club. A lifeguard reports:
Water-dropping helicopters had been taking water from the pond on the golf course at the corner of Angeles Crest Highway and Country Club Drive since the fire started. The club management opposed, even going so far as telling sheriff’s department and police officials they couldn’t take any water unless the club was paid for it. One of the other guards on duty heard a conversation between club management in which they said they wanted the guards to remain on duty to prevent the helicopters from taking water from the pool.
The Real La Canada blog UPDATED from The Real La Canada Blog:
There appears to have been a misunderstanding. Helicopters were using a water hazard at the country club to gather water to fight the blaze. This resulted in the water depleting rather quickly from the water hazard. A hose had been hooked up to a nearby fire hydrant was being used to replenish the water that had been taken. This rapid use of water became a concern for city water officials. Aware of the magnitude of the blaze, city water officials cautioned the use of such a large amount of water. This is very understandable, La Canada can only store so much water and once its gone, its gone.
In the medium-to-long term, it’s time to rewrite the rules of fire. We can’t control the megadrought, but we can use water wisely. We can’t do much to reverse the climate change that has already occurred, but we can keep it from getting worse. We can’t reverse years of bad Republican decisions, but we can take back the state. And in the long term, if we don’t do any of those, I fear that we will have to make some ugly choices about attempting to sustain both a very large, thirsty population and a thirsty agricultural way of life.