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