Climate change means we will have more and more destructive wildfires.
It’s an interesting theory but it’s not the real story.
No one can argue with observations such as the University of California, Merced research that show the Western United States fire season has grown longer due to warmer weather patterns. Merced researchers found that the fire season between 1973 and 1982 was around 80 days longer than between 2003 and 2012. But that has everything to do with the length of conditions that exist — dry weather, winds, and such — than it does with what fuels fires.
Back in the 1860s and 1870s settlers in the Central Valley told of fires that would burn for months until the rains stopped them. That’s how nature operated in California and the rest of the Western United States until the great migration populated coastal plains, valleys, hillsides, canyons, and mountains.
Fires burned until they burned out. That’s the way things work in nature.
Nature’s course, though, doesn’t work too well for mankind.
That’s why we suppress fires. It’s logical to do so in urban settings but it isn’t necessarily wise to do so in the wild.
The National Interagency Fire Center that draws from all agencies that handle fires in wildlands from forests to deserts indicates in an average year there are 10,280 lighting caused fires reported. Lighting fires burn more than 3.7 million acres a year. That includes 214,644 acres in Northern California and 77,616 acres in Southern California during a typical year. The area with the least amount of lightning strikes — Alaska — has the most acres burned in a given year at 1,550,732 acres.
Given how sparsely populated and remote much of Alaska is, the effort to stop fires is at a minimum. That means in conditions that more closely represent man’s interaction in the wilderness when population was at a level that reflect native tribes’ degree of civilization, fires burn much more territory.
The increasing intensity of wildfires in terms of their destruction is due to the encroachment of urbanization, the buildup of brush and other fuel from years and decades of fire suppression, and the tendency of those settling on rural property building homes near or under canopies of oaks and such that go up in flames as quickly as a dried out Christmas tree in a house kept at a nice warm 72 degrees in the dead of winter.
This is not the result of climate change. It has everything to do with where we live and the number of people there are.
If you haven’t noticed land use policies and objectives clash non-stop.
We build where water is and when people object to that either because they have designs on development or are concerned about the environment we build in places where we have to import water.
Building on fertile valley spoil irks some who point out it is gobbling up valuable farmland. They prefer urbanization to take place on land that lacks local water such as in the coastal hills. Of course, the coastal hills in Northern California have the dry Diablo winds just as the South State has the drys Santa Ana winds. Those fall weather condition may not have existed 10,000 years ago where they do so they could be the result of natural climate change. But it is a stretch beyond the realms of reality to even suggest that manmade climate change is behind the biggest natural component of massive wildfires — dry and fast winds.
Using Cal Fire stats for 2008 — the last year accessible on their official site — there were 3,593 fires in their coverage area of which 336 were caused by lightning fires. Together 380,310 acres burned including 191,299 acres in fires started by a lightning strike.
Cal Fire — unlike the Forest Service — doesn’t typically start management fires that you see smoldering in the Stanislaus Forest and Yosmeite National Park to reduce brush and other fuel that can help create out of control conflagrations as the massive 257,000-acre Rim Fire that intruded into Yosmeite in 2013. It was the largest fire in the Sierra and third largest ever in California during the blink of time man has tracked such events.
The disaster unfolding in the Wine Country was inevitable. Wildfire experts have been issuing that warning for decades. With California a year away from topping 40 million residents, development patterns will only increase the chance of more destructive wildfires and not lessen the odds.
It is not a pretty thing given the loss of life, property, and human suffering.
That said, we shouldn’t forget fire is nature’s way of renewal.
There is extensive research that shows fire is a key element when it comes to the longevity and survival of the largest living things on earth and some of the oldest— the redwoods and giant sequoias.
Man is the one that has to adapt to fire, not the other way around.
The past five days have been a somber reminder that we can never control the forces of nature. Given time nature will always prevail whether it is via the power of water and ice wearing down granite mountains, the relentless pounding of the sea, the swelling of rivers, the shaking of the earth, or the flames of a raging wildfire.