Commentary: The New Normal?

It wasn’t an incredibly hot fall.  In fact, I don’t know that we had a single real heat wave after Labor Day.  But we’ve had almost no rain, and for most of October the temperatures were running around the high 70s to low 80s  There were a few weeks when I noticed the high temperatures were almost at the midway point between the normal high and record high.

The chief problem: no rainfall to speak of.  Then a high pressure system hit last week, the winds were whipping and the dry brush ignited in both Northern and Southern California.  The results were devastating.  For the second prolonged period this year, we have been inundated with smoke, creating very unhealthy conditions – at times bordering on outright hazardous.

The last time this happened it was the middle of summer and the kids were not in school.

This time, there are impacts on our kids.  Our middle schooler had his soccer tournament canceled due to the air quality.

The district sent out a notice yesterday afternoon: “The wildfires continue to blow smoke and ash causing very poor air quality in and around our community.  While school will continue as scheduled, school administrators and staff will be monitoring the local Air Quality Index (AQI) regularly to determine safe levels of student activity each day.”

In general, the next two days are predicted to be unhealthy for all groups, and so we we anticipate the following protocols for schools:

  • All outside activity will be cancelled or moved indoors until air quality improves
  • After school athletic practices and games at our junior high schools and Davis Senior High will be rescheduled or moved inside
  • During the school day, classroom doors will remain closed to ensure safe air quality

Then again, we are on the fortunate side.  While the air quality issues are a reminder to us that, even if we are not directly in the path of a dangerous wildfire, we still stand in harm’s way, the reality is that Paradise has become at least the third California community in the last 13 months to be utterly devastated by fire.

This one is perhaps the worst, with at least 42 people dying.  The limited egress meant that many people were caught on the highway attempting to flee.  Many others had to abandon their vehicles because of the traffic.  With a large number of seniors, though, many simply were not able to make it.

The death toll, already the largest in state history, is likely to climb, as at least 100 more people are unaccounted for.

The New York Times interviewed one person who explained that there were cars behind and in front, and “fire on both sides.”

“I thought, ‘this is not how I want to die,’” one person recalled on Sunday.  It was hot, it was smoky and — this sounds like such an exaggeration, but — it was apocalyptic.”

As I have driven the rural roads in California many times, I have often wondered, as the traffic has backed up, what happens if people have to evacuate on these roads.  The irony is that Paradise should have been better off than other locations.

A wildfire tore through the area a decade ago, and city leaders put together an emergency plan attempting to make the evacuations swift and orderly.

However, the Mayor of Paradise, Jody Jones, a traffic specialist who spent years working as a regional manager for the California Department of Transportation, told the Times that, despite preparations and practice, there was not much they could do.

The fire was too intense, the speed too great.  Firefighters explained that they were “dumbstruck” by the speed of the fire.

“I don’t know that you could build the infrastructure to evacuate an entire town that quickly,” Ms. Jones said. “I just don’t know if that’s possible.”

There was nothing they could do.

It doesn’t help that in a time of tragedy and anguish, the president, rather than the voice of calming comfort, has simply thrown additional fuel on the raging fire.

He said last week that the state is to blame due to a “mismanagement of forests,” despite many forests being under federal jurisdiction.  California only controls about three percent of its forests, while the vast majority is controlled by the federal government.

One problem with blaming the forest for the fires is that neither of the two big fires actually started in a forest.  Instead they started in the “wildland-urban interface” – the transition area between wildlands and communities.  In short, there is little amount of management that would have prevented such a fire from breaking out.

This last summer with the Mendocino Complex Fire, after the Thomas Fire from last fall, experts once again argued that rising temperatures linked to climate change “are making the fires larger, more dangerous and more expensive to fight.”

Governor Jerry Brown last summer called the situation the “new normal.”

Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor at Penn State University, stated that he believes climate change is contributing to the level of these events.

“We’re not saying that climate change is literally causing the events to occur. What we can conclude with a great deal of confidence now is that climate change is making these events more extreme. And it’s not rocket science, you warm the atmosphere, it’s going to hold more moisture, you get larger flooding events, you get more rainfall. You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worse drought,” Professor Mann said on PBS NewsHour last summer. “You bring all that together and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”

Meanwhile, pushing back against the president, Governor Brown said that “forest management alone would not spare California from the kind of expansive, deadly fires that are unfolding today.”  And he linked the fires to climate change, which is yielding longer droughts and more extreme weather conditions in California.

“We have a real challenge here threatening our whole way of life,” he said. “We’re going to have to invest more and more in adaptation. It’s not millions. It’s billions and tens and probably hundreds of billions (of dollars).”

On Sunday, the governor added, “Managing all the forests everywhere we can does not stop climate change, and those who deny that definitely are contributing to the tragedies that we are witnessing and will continue to witness.”

A point raised by the New York Magazine: “November always marked the beginning of rainy season in California. Now it is fire season.”

Last year it was the Thomas Fire in Southern California, but also fires in Santa Rosa and Napa.

The article notes: “In the California of that future, every season would be fire season. In fact, that is already how climate scientists and firefighters are now describing the state’s wildfire season: year-round.”

So get your masks for your kids and yourself, have them handy, because we are going to pull them out more and more.  This is not simply an inconvenience.  The fire killed fast in Paradise, but the health impacts from the exposure to this much particulate matter could have a lifetime’s impact on us and our kids.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron

    “Climate change contributes to the growing destruction from California wildfires. Hot, dry weather conditions that help carry fires for thousands of acres are often present nearly year-round now. The state’s urban sprawl and encroachment into formerly undeveloped land is the real catalyst, though, said former Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District chief Kurt Henke.”

    “The powerful group has also advocated against too much residential development. Last year, Edmiston called for the limiting of recovery funds for rebuilding homes in fire-prone areas.”

  2. Tia Will

    We have a real challenge here threatening our whole way of life”

    This is probably the most cogent statement regarding our situation in California. For decades, Californias, enraptured by the beauty of our state have held unrealistic expectations of how many of us can be safely accommodated in some very fragile environments. We have diverted, shifted and transported water from its natural settings in order to provide for farming and other activities in areas where there were insufficient natural supplies.

    I do not believe it is our forests or even our urban-rural interfaces that will ultimately have to be managed. I believe it is our way of life. If we are going to prevent further similar disasters, we are going to have to make some serious alterations of how and where we choose to live instead of assuming that we can just rebuild and resume the previous status quo.

  3. Alan Miller

    The Bay Area is in several places built on earthquake faults — like directly on them — police stations, housing, greek houses, a stadium, hospitals.  No building code withstands a rupture in the earth directly under the building — this is just human stupidity.  As is living in a tinder-dry forest.  Or living below sea level in a hurricane zone.

    We need to have insurance rates and policies that align with the true risk, and those that live in those places should pay, not those that do not. With an economic incentive aligned with the risk, more people would live in wiser places.

    1. Keith O

      Well said Alan, I totally agree.

      I find it funny to see liberals complaing about too much housing and where housing is built but at the same time advocate for open borders and unfettered legal and illegal immigration.  Thay all have to live somewhere when they come to California.

    2. Ron

      Perhaps needless to agree, since I couldn’t have worded Alan’s post better, myself. Unfortunately, the media does not consistently focus on this. It’s as if an “unexpected tragedy” occurs, each and every time.

      (As a side note, this particular issue is not “Trump’s fault”.)

      1. David Greenwald

        The “issue” is not Trump’s fault, but his handling of it leaves a lot to be desired. We keep hearing the soon departing conservatives talking about things like Trump Derangement Syndrome, well, at some point he has to own up to his part of causing that by stating irresponsible things – over and over and over. It’s not okay.

        1. Ron

          I would argue that the root of Alan M’s comment is a conservative one.  Also, note that Keith agreed with it (and added another point).

          Regarding the statements that Trump put forth, it makes no sense to me.  Unless you’re talking about clear-cutting all forests, including the smaller trees and brush (that are of little interest to logging interests).

          In realitiy, I suspect that much of the “at risk” wildlands actually consist of brush and timber that have little commercial value.

          But again, I don’t see “liberals” or “progressives” addressing the primary problem either, as discussed by Alan (or in the articles I posted).  That is, building in high-risk areas, without having to (financially) pay for that risk. 

          Ultimately, some “pay” with their lives, instead.

        2. Keith O

          We keep hearing the soon departing conservatives talking about things like Trump Derangement Syndrome, well, at some point he has to own up to his part of causing that by stating irresponsible things – over and over and over. It’s not okay.

          LOL, so you’re finally admitting that TDS is real.

          Thank you for that.

        3. Keith O

          I admit that Trump causes a visceral reaction. You’ve never acknowledged his role in that.

          No doubt about it.  I see the visceral reactions everyday on this blog.  It’s called TDS.

          Yes Trump has a role in it, he got elected and you don’t like his politics.

          1. David Greenwald

            I don’t like his politics, but there are a lot of people whose politics I don’t like. His conduct concerns me a lot more than his politics. You once told me that you didn’t particularly like Trump, seems like you defend him at nearly ever step of the way.

        4. Keith O

          I sometimes cringe at his tweets and wonder why he sometimes says things.  He certainly wasn’t my first choice among GOP candidates.  But when it came down to Trump or Hillary, it was an easy choice for me.

          1. David Greenwald

            Which I get from your perspective, but in the process I think this has done a lot of damage to the country, who knows how much of it is irreparable. A lot on the right seem to have sold themselves out for a tax cut and the fleeting promise of a wall.

        5. Keith O

          I could care less about the tax cut or the wall.  I feel there are better ways to secure the border through technology and at a much cheaper price tag.  The best thing about Trump is he put a stop to many of the left’s policies where Hillary would’ve doubled down.

          So, what do you think about Hillary ruuning again as we’ve been hearing about the last few days?

          And we’re already seeing the divide in the Democrat ranks between the hard left and the moderate hard left (there are hardly any moderate Democrats left) in Washington as was shown by some of yesterday’s antics. And to think the new class hasn’t even taken office yet.

        6. Ron

          Moderator:  The Vanguard article itself touches on several topics related to the fire – not just climate change.

          The first article I saw this morning states this:

          The council is set on rebuilding Paradise, but they know it’s an uphill battle and a task that’s impossible to accomplish alone.

          Asked by CBS San Francisco if Paradise has the funds and infrastructure to rebuild, Zuccolillo replied, “No. We are going to have to have help from the feds and the state.”

          Unfortunately, I’d call that the “same old normal”.  It probably doesn’t even address other significant costs that we all end up paying for, which are essentially public subsidies to rebuild in high-risk areas.

        7. Ron

          Keith:  Yeap – utility costs/liabilities are one of the subsidies that we’ll all end up paying for.  Others include the cost to intensively fight fires (to protect property and lives), insurance rates (unless properly allocated), and probably a whole lot of other costs.

          Ultimately, these subsidies also result in the loss of life for residents and responders.

          But, Trump’s suggestion won’t work either, unless all brush and low-value trees are clear-cut, and remain that way permanently. (Not a practical or wise course of action, to say the least.)

          (Looks like the comment I was responding to might have been deleted, as I was typing this.)

        8. Howard P

          Here’s another “new normal” Ron, et al.:

          Downed limbs, dead trees, other forest “litter”, is now considered “habitat”… sacred… not to be removed or disturbed… aka, “fuel”… pretty sure that the intensity of some/most of the wildfires (wildfires are endemic in CA, going back at least a few thousand years) has been exacerbated due to former fire suppression mantras, and modern “environmental” choices driven, more than, (but arguably, related to) folk wanting to live ‘in the woods’.

          If we had written records, with documentation going back, say, 10,000 years, this is not the “new normal”… it is the “normal” (perhaps a ‘blip’ in some areas)… but more people are affected, and is “new” to them…


        9. Ron

          Howard:  Fires have certainly been a natural part of the process, as pointed out by environmentalists.  However, downed limbs, dead trees, and other forest “litter” are also a natural part of the process (and forests depend upon that, to replenish soil and for habitat). Woodpeckers, for example, immediately come to mind, as they’re attracted to dead trees and the insects that inhabit them. Other animals also take advantage of those opportunities.

          In any cays, if you’re advocating for the removal of forest “litter” over vast areas of land on an indefinite/constant basis, I’d also ask who is going to pay for that.  Seems like yet another subsidy.

          Wildlands do not depend upon human activity for ongoing “health”. In fact, some plants don’t even reproduce, without fire.

    3. Howard P

      You forgot a dam… holding back the Crystal Springs Reservoir… main water supply for the Peninsula… built directly over the San Andreas fault.  If it suddenly collapsed, the canyon downstream would direct the flow of water directly to downtown San Mateo.

      The dam withstood Loma Prieta… and the 1906 event… it was built in the 1880’s…

      And yes, properties downstream are in a special SFHA.

  4. Howard P

    On the topic of climate change… climate changes… fact… many occured before humans existed… there is no disputing that… why we see no live dinosaurs… duh!

    How much human activities are driving the current changes is open to scientific debate, as is what can be done about it… a true environmentalist, if they believe human activity is the essential cause, might advocate for the Jonestown solution… drink the Cool-aid… All humans… (but that might end the carbon sequestration of our bodies… might need to study that!)…

    I support a more measured response, to minimize possible/likely “contributing factors”… but if anyone thinks one continent, one country, one state, one County, one City, one household can do it alone (mitigation) is a patent fool.

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