13 november 2018

Climate plays role as drought, hot temps, wind fuel disaster

Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Hot temperatures, dry vegetation and fast winds created a recipe for disaster and death in California this weekend as fires tore through multiple communities. One of the blazes now ranks as the deadliest fire in state history.

Climate change played a role, fire officials and climate scientists said.

"Yes, the climate has changed, and it's a significant factor," said Scott McLean, deputy chief at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. "It's a predominant factor in the cause of these fires."

High winds powered the flames, he said, but the dry vegetation provided plenty of fuel to burn. Dry shrubs also raise the risk that flying embers will start new fires when they land, fire experts said.

"The weather change is very dramatic right now," McLean added. "That's what's pushing these fires. The weather is so dry, so hot. The vegetation — the moisture is just being tapped out of it. It's pretty evident what's causing this."

Fire officials yesterday were still working to contain the Camp Fire in Butte County, now the deadliest and the most destructive blaze in state history. It's killed 42 people, surpassing the toll of the 1933 Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles, which killed 29. Fire officials warned that the death count in the Camp Fire could continue to climb.

The Camp Fire also has incinerated 6,453 homes and 260 commercial buildings. A retirement village was essentially wiped away.

The fire moved so fast, it ripped through "football field lengths in just a matter of seconds," McLean said. "The fire just took everything in its path. Structure after structure after structure was destroyed."

In Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the Woolsey Fire tore through 370 buildings and killed two people. The Hill Fire in Ventura County burned 4,531 acres and destroyed two structures. The fires also are causing air quality issues in multiple regions.

RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote and chairwoman of the California Democratic Party's Environmental Caucus, fled her home because of the fires, bringing her 94-year-old mother.

Her home survived, but the fire came within 500 feet, burning nearby chaparral, she said.

Miller believes climate is a factor, based on information from scientists who have told her warmer temperatures lead to decreased snowpack, erratic precipitation and increased droughts.

The fire scare has "just made me more determined than ever to speak out and stop or fight climate change with everything that I have," she said.

Climate played 'starring role'

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, said in a series of tweets that climate change factored into the fires. Warming didn't cause the fires, he said, because "all disasters are compound events" with many contributing factors.

"But sometimes, climate can play starring role," he said.

Development of homes in high-fire-risk wildlands "is at least as important as climate change. In other cases, forest and fuels management is also key consideration," Swain wrote. "But on top of these other factors, climate change is acting as a pervasive & growing '#wildfire threat multiplier.'"

Northern California received far less fall precipitation than normal this fall, he noted. With more rain, "explosive fire behavior & stunning tragedy in #Paradise would almost certainly not have occurred," Swain tweeted.

"Indicators of vegetation dryness and potential fire intensity were at record-high levels," he added. Strong winds were a key factor, he said, "but strong winds in damp forest simply aren't going to drive the same kind of wildfire. The extreme, summer-like dryness of vegetation clearly matters."

U.S. Geological Survey fire ecologist Jon Keeley agreed that drought and dry vegetation add to fire risk. But he said there's no evidence climate change has caused California's droughts. More people living in urban areas and near forests increases risk, he said.

Max Moritz, cooperative extension wildlife specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said climate change is a factor, but "we don't know how much."

California is a big state with different environments affected by climate change in different degrees, he said.

"Even in the absence of climate change, we would have the potential for large destructive fires," Moritz said. "Climate change is just augmenting the problem, making it more extreme, more acute." It's also "hopefully raising awareness that we have to do something differently."

One preventive option is limiting building in high-risk areas, but that's not politically popular, Moritz said. Retrofitting homes would help, he said, including eliminating wood shake roofs and putting ember-proof vents in attics and crawl spaces. Having plants high in moisture outside can protect a home by keeping flying embers from igniting.

The state needs to look at putting power lines underground, but that's expensive, Keeley said.

'Chickens coming home to roost'

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) cited climate as he pushed back at President Trump's tweets blaming the fires on poor forest management.

"Managing all the forests in everywhere we can does not stop climate change," Brown said at a press conference. "And those that deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we're now witnessing and will continue to witness in the coming years. The chickens are coming home to roost. This is real here."

A spokesman for Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom (D) did not respond to a request for comment on how he plans to address fires in the future.

Miller said Newsom needs to take a tough stance.

"It will [take] substantial political muscle," Miller said. "The utilities, [Pacific Gas & Electric Co.] in particular, has been handing out cash to every California legislator and candidate."

The cause of the fires is under investigation. PG&E told state officials that one of its power lines in Butte County suffered an outage around the time the Camp Fire started in that area, near the town of Pulga, The Sacramento Bee reported. The company's stock price has fallen one-third since that report Thursday, the Bee said.

PG&E, the nation's largest utility by revenues, already faces billions of dollars of liability if its equipment is blamed for the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed thousands of homes in Santa Rosa last October, at the time the most expensive firestorm in state history.

However, the state Legislature passed and Brown signed a measure allowing utilities to bill their customers to pay for future legal settlements stemming from the devastating 2017 wildfires, even if the blazes are blamed on the company's mismanagement. The law is aimed at preventing bankruptcy or other serious financial trouble for PG&E (Energywire, Sept. 25).

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