Commentary: Extreme Weather, Fires, Climate Change

I recently had an interesting conversation with a long-time firefighter, and naturally the conversation turned to that of climate change.  In many ways, firefighters are on the front lines of the climate change fight – they see the effects and the changes much more closely than the rest of us.

The big thing he noticed in 30 years has been the changing nature of the fire season.  It used to be that, while they would have fires into the fall, once they got to the end of September, they were largely in the clear.  Now they are having catastrophic fires into October and November.

The catastrophic fire in Paradise, California, started on November 8, 2018, on Camp Creek Road.  While it began with a faulty electric transmission line, the fire itself was fueled by the combination of drought, the late start to the rainy reason (normally the area has received five inches of rain by November 12 but had less than a quarter-inch), and strong dry winds that have been the result of intense high pressure systems persisting later and later into the year.

The combination of these factors was catastrophic and believed to be intensified by climate change.

It is not just California burning.  On the news right now as I write, Australia has declared a seven-day state of emergency as deadly bushfires rage.

High temperatures – 104 degrees, dry conditions and ferocious winds are fueling these fires.  Sound familiar?

CNN reports: “The Australian fires have been burning for months now, and aren’t likely to stop anytime soon — Australia is still in the early months of summer, and temperatures typically peak in January and February.”

The worst part is, for Australia, we are at the beginning, not the end of fire season.

CNN adds: “Australia typically has a fire season during the dry, hot summer — but this year’s weather conditions are more extreme, leading to more devastating blazes. The country is gripped by one of the worst droughts in decades, and a heatwave broke nationwide records in December.”

The kicker: “Experts say climate change has worsened the scale and impact of the fires, and many have accused the Morrison administration of not doing enough to address the climate crisis.”

Yesterday, climate scientist Michael Mann wrote an op-ed in  the Guardian, noting that “my work has brought me to Sydney where I’m studying the linkages between climate change and extreme weather events.

“It’s not complicated,” Professor Mann writes.  “The brown skies I observed in the Blue Mountains this week are a product of human-caused climate change. Take record heat, combine it with unprecedented drought in already dry regions and you get unprecedented bushfires like the ones engulfing the Blue Mountains and spreading across the continent.”

He writes, “The warming of our planet – and the changes in climate associated with it – are due to the fossil fuels we’re burning: oil, whether at midnight or any other hour of the day, natural gas, and the biggest culprit of all, coal. That’s not complicated either.

“The continent of Australia is figuratively – and in some sense literally – on fire,” he adds.

It was Michael Mann who wrote an op-ed in November of 2018 (six days before the Camp Fire) in the Washington Post, “It’s not rocket science: Climate change was behind this summer’s extreme weather.”

He noted: “Summer 2018 saw an unprecedented spate of extreme floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires break out across North America, Europe and Asia.”

To repeat, “It’s not rocket science,” he wrote then as now.  “Climate scientists have become increasingly comfortable talking about these connections. Much like how medical science has developed key diagnostic tools, we have developed sophisticated tools to diagnose the impact climate change is having on extreme weather events.”

It’s not just fire and drought being fueled by climate change.

Wired ran a story earlier this week,: “It’s Not Just You—Wild Swings in Extreme Weather Are Rising.”

They warn: “As the world warms, scientists say that abrupt shifts in weather patterns, like droughts followed by severe floods, are intensifying.”

They write: “From 2011 to 2016, California experienced five years of extreme drought, during which numerous high temperature records were broken. These hot, dry years were followed by the extremely wet winter of 2016 -2017, when, from October to March, an average of 31 inches of rain fell across the state, the second highest winter rainfall on record.

“All that rain meant a bumper crop of grasses and other vegetation, which, as hot and dry conditions returned, likely contributed to a combustible mix of fuels that played a role in the severe fires that have swept California in the past two years.”

They have given these wild swings a name – “climate whiplash” or “weather whiplash.”  They warn: “[S]cientists say is (this) likely to increase as the world warms. The intensity of wildfires these days in places like California are a symptom of climate change, experts say, but the whiplash effect poses a different set of problems for humans and natural systems.”

The problem is expected to get worse.

They write: “Researchers project that by the end of this century, the frequency of these abrupt transitions between wet and dry will increase by 25 percent in Northern California and as much as double in Southern California if greenhouse gasses continue to increase.”

“There has been an assumption that the main thing we have to contend with climate change is increased temperatures, decreased snowpack, increased wildfire risk” on the West Coast, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Those things are still true, but there is this other dimension we will have to contend with — the increased risk of extreme flood and drought, and rapid transitions between the two.”

Montecito, California, is a great example.  One of the worst wildfires swept through the region last year and then, “[w]eeks later, torrential rains fell on the burned ground, causing mudslides that wiped out houses and killed 21 people.”

That means what we have to face are ferocious droughts and wildfires and heatwaves, followed by tremendous storms and floods.  Sometimes in the same year.  Sometimes over the course of the next few years.

It also means that we can see extreme weather deeper into the fall.  Times when we used to be out of the woods could now be times of the greatest tragedy.

—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. Alan Miller

    You give a bunch of examples of extreme weather and that does what, prove climate change?

    You want extreme weather, look up the after-effects of the meteor impact on the Yucatan Peninsula.  Or a bit less extreme and more modern, the Earth post-Krakatoa.

    Sure, if this climate change really is 100% humans f*cking the earth, the damage is largely done.  We should of course reduce fossil fuel use for a variety of reasons — but it ain’t going away anytime soon.  Anyone who spouts this line and flies in the sky to get places can take their calling out of me as a climate denier, and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine (because, of course, if we keep burning fossil fuels, the sun won’t shine, ha ha).

    Truth is, whatever the cause and whatever the intensity, mostly we have to deal with it.  Raise the railroad, abandon the houses on the cliffs over the ocean, say goodbye to Venice.

    Most of what you described is people building houses in stupid places, and then being upset when Mother Nature (aka The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity) reclaims what is hers.



    1. David Greenwald

      “You give a bunch of examples of extreme weather and that does what, prove climate change?”

      Why are you assuming I’m trying to prove climate change?

  2. Ron Oertel

    Today is apparently the day when the Vanguard switches from advocating for more development (e.g., in the form of a 4,340-parking space freeway-oriented development), back to “what can each of us do” about global warming.  😉

    1. David Greenwald

      You’re arguing a point I have already addressed (and has little to do with the current article which is less about prevention and more about the consequence of climate change).

      1. Ron Oertel

        Well, as long as “someone else” does their part, I guess.

        What’s the “purpose” of writing about the consequences (which we’re all pretty familiar with), if you’re not advocating for a change?

        1. Ron Oertel

          O.K. – you’re not advocating for a change, I guess.  Party on!

          Regarding preparation, what would you suggest?  Not building in high-risk fire zones, or in areas that will increasingly flood, for example?

          Perhaps try to “buy” Greenland?

          I’ve always “fancied” Canada. 😉

          1. David Greenwald

            It seems to me that there are several concurrent discussions that need to happen – one of them is understanding how this is going to change things.

          2. Don Shor

            Regarding preparation, what would you suggest?

            Change the building codes in fire prone areas, as they did in San Diego County after the fires in the early 2000’s.

            Establish regional fire agencies. Increase funding and implementation of fire prevention strategies. Enhance technology for monitoring conditions.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Might help, Don.  But there’s this:

          “Burned-out California town ignores stricter building codes, even with wildfire threat”

          Coffey Park residents seem resigned to the risk of another fire. They consider it part of the cost of living in a neighborhood they love. When asked about building codes, they say yes, another monster like the Tubbs Fire would be devastating — but no amount of fire-resistant roofing would likely change that.”

          Part of the problem is that the “extra cost” of living in high-risk zones is not fully borne by those who make that choice. It ends up being subsidized by others – who have no say in the matter.

        3. Richard McCann

          Yes, too many people are living in high fire risk zones. One cost that could be passed on would be making the electric system more resilient. By my calculation, this could nearly double electricity rates if spread over PG&E’s service area:

          Meanwhile, Davis, which is NOT in a fire risk zone, discourages construction of new housing that could accommodate those people if we passed on the real costs to those homeowners. The flood risk in Davis likely will remain small so we are not trading one for the other.

        4. Ron Oertel

          The flood risk in Davis likely will remain small so we are not trading one for the other.

          The main problem is that “both” are pursued.  One (infill) does not “substitute” for the other (sprawl). I suspect that pursuit of density ultimately “leads” to sprawl.

          It’s ALL related to a denial of practical limits. (Not just limited to Davis.)

          The entire “system” is too corrupted, to assume that increased density “prevents” sprawl.

          Of course, there’s also “quality of life” attached to either pursuit.

  3. Dave Hart

    Climate change imperatives don’t change the underlying stupidity (or greed, or a other motives) of not factoring in the full costs of human activity that are often regarded as “normal”.  Examples are legion.  Natomas was built up at a time when it was well-known to be in a very vulnerable flood zone in the event of any levee failure along the Sacramento River or American River.  All the building, as Ron Oertel just referred to, in known high fire risk areas is another obvious one example.  None of these risks ever seem to be important to local agencies who approve the development.  The insurance companies have begun to weigh in by suggesting through rate increases that these costs should be borne by the individual homeowners.  Makes sense.  But the political pushback is just beginning as well to spread out those costs on to those of us who don’t live in these zones.  Jerry Brown got a bill passed by the Legislature to levy a small and really nominal $100/yr fire tax on parcels in the fire zones of California that was ultimately repealed.  Imagine asking people to pay $8.00/month to support the State California Fire services that all of us already pay for and don’t use because we have local fire departments that cover our needs.  And off of this is one little slice.  Dont’even get me started on how we subsidize automobile traffic and parking to our general detriment and paying for the full cost of that would cause people to reconsider automobile ownership which would have a positive impact on carbon dioxide production.  It’s everywhere and the solutions are everywhere, but it means embracing deep and pervasive change.  We don’t even want the University Mall to change.  We’re doomed.

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