Californians hold their breath, waiting for relief from worst-ever fire season

David Knowles
·Editor
·8 mins read

SAN FRANCISCO — For the fourth straight year, fire season, as it is called in California, has millions of residents in the nation’s most populous state on edge, with flames having devoured more than 2.2 million acres so far this year, more than 2 percent of the entire state, the most ever.

And some forestry experts believe the next several months could be worse.

Exacerbated by climate change, the yearly onslaught of flames and smoke that has once again sullied air across the state and brought residents indoors has forced many Californians to consider the unthinkable: leaving the Golden State.

“Just watching it become a seasonal thing every single year that people have to deal with — and knowing people that lost their homes or had to evacuate — it’s just something we don’t want to deal with,” Jessica Martin, a marketing manager in Santa Rosa told Yahoo News.

The Bidwell Bar Bridge surrounded by wildfires in Oroville, Calif. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)
The Bidwell Bar Bridge surrounded by wildfires in Oroville, Calif. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

After having narrowly escaped the 2018 Tubbs Fire and forced to remain on alert the last two years, Martin and her husband decided to move to Kitsap County, Wash., an island off Puget Sound.

“Our son was actually born just a couple of months before the Tubbs Fire, and that was absolutely terrifying,” Martin said. “We had an infant with us, we didn’t know what was happening. We were driving out and I remember being so grateful that our gas tank happened to be full because the lines were outrageous.”

On Wednesday, the Bay Area awoke to an eerie orange darkness as smoke from multiple blazes packed the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun’s light like a giant polarized sunglass lens. Throughout the day, ash drifted down like tainted snowflakes, coating the landscape. On Thursday, the dirty gray sky returned, along with air quality rated “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” on websites that residents now check daily and plan their days around.

Sparked by an unusual cluster of lightning storms in August followed by a scorching heatwave, blazes across Northern California have destroyed more than 1,200 homes, consumed cherished redwoods in state parks and forced mass evacuations.

Further south, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a fire believed to have been started by a pyrotechnic device used at a party exploded across 78,000 acres in a matter of hours, stranding vacationers, approximately 385 of whom had to be airlifted to safety.

“For me, the Sierra was always one of the greatest reasons for being in California,” Hugo Larman, a landscape architect in Albany, Calif., told Yahoo News. “Now it’s feeling like that’s coming to an end. My hope is that the fires will become less intense after the unnatural underbrush has burned through, but that’s a ways off. Plus the climate is changing.”

Devastation from the Creek Fire, near Shaver Lake, Calif. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Devastation from the Creek Fire, near Shaver Lake, Calif. (David McNew/Getty Images)

As new housing developments have gone up in more remote areas of the state, controlled burns that eliminate dead trees and clear out decades-long buildups of underbrush have not kept pace. That has left an excess of fuel for the fires that now cost the state tens of billions each year.

“We are, in a way, paying off this debt that we’ve accumulated for 120 years, which is essentially trying to keep fire out of ecosystems that are fully adapted to fire and in some cases are dependent on it,” said Brandon Collins, a researcher with UC Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research and Outreach.

Summer wildfires have always been a danger in California, the result of high pressure cells that form over Nevada and channel strong Santa Ana winds toward the coast. But climate change has made that dynamic worse.

“Southern California has warmed about three degrees in the last century and all of the state is becoming warmer,” the Environmental Protection Agency warned in 2016. “Heat waves are becoming more common, snow is melting earlier in spring — and in Southern California, less rain is falling as well,” the agency said in a press release. “In the coming decades, the changing climate is likely to further decrease the supply of water, increase the risk of wildfires, and threaten coastal development and ecosystems.”

“It’s just that there’s more opportunity for an ignition to coincide with bad fire weather, which allows it to escape our suppression,” Collins said.

A recent view of the San Francisco Bay Area. (Burak Arik/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A recent view of the San Francisco Bay Area. (Burak Arik/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Two years after the EPA’s assessment was released, the Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise, destroying more than 13,000 homes as it consumed the surrounding dry forest at a rate of a football field per second.

“The flames were like a demon. They were just crazy,” Bert Clement, whose Paradise home burned down, told Yahoo News. “It was just a completely different kind of a flame. It was a flame of — it just scared you. Because it was so ... it was so alive.”

Released the same year as the Camp Fire, California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment estimated that by 2100, the average annual daily temperature would rise by between 5.6 degrees and 8.8 degrees depending on the measures taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For Lisa Palladino, the link between climate change and the increasing number of wildfires pushed her to leave the state in the aftermath of the 2017 Thomas Fire, at the time the largest wildfire in California history. Palladino was lucky that after burning more than 280,000 acres, the blaze was halted just before it reached her property in Ojai. But the stress of the experience, compounded by deadly mudslides in nearby Montecito three months after the fire was extinguished, left a mark.

“I’m a therapist, so I was like, ‘what are the tools that I have to get through this?’” Palladino said. “But you can’t use mindfulness when you’re talking about climate change. The summers were getting increasingly hot — 108 was normal when we first moved there, but then it started getting to be 112, it was 118 there this week — I just didn’t see an end in sight.”

Higher temperatures in the West mean less water and more fire. Across 11 Western states, including more than half or California, approximately 87 percent of the landscape is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Even more startling, much of the normally rain-soaked states of Oregon and Washington — where wildfires have erupted this week — are suffering severe drought.

More fire means more smoke.

Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website. “Even someone who is healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air.”

The short-term health effects of breathing wildfire smoke include chest pain, headaches, tiredness, sore throat, tiredness, asthma attacks and an elevated heart rate. The longer-term effects haven’t been studied yet. Meanwhile checking air quality websites feels like just one more dispiriting new normal in California. Despite this, Collins maintains that residents who remain in the state shouldn’t adopt a fatalistic attitude about wildfires.

“I do believe it is something we can manage, but it’s going to take a major change in mindset, both on the public side of things in terms of acceptance of management of the forest both with intentional burning and also acceptance in terms of doing mechanical treatment — that is, what many people would consider logging,” Collins said.

With an emphasis on mitigation, Collins said the state may need to halt new construction in certain areas, and convince residents that controlled burns are a necessary part of living in the state. Otherwise, California may never outrun the fires sure to come each and every year.

As if the state needed more bad news, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center announced the formation of a La Nina weather pattern, which occurs when the Pacific Ocean cools. It portends an especially long dry season, potentially further extending the duration of a wildfire season already made longer by climate change.

Given the challenges facing the state, Collins stressed that solving the problem means more than simply reacting to each new blaze with a team of firefighters.

“I’m hoping that at some point we’re going to flip that and say, look, we can’t just rely on the suppression to do the work,” Collins said. “We have to do the work ahead of time.”

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