California’s fire season isn’t over yet, but megafire events have already taken a major toll on the state and its inhabitants, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. Warm, dry climate change conditions have made housing in LA’s “Wildland-Urban Interface” dangerous.


Story Transcript

Climate change is making California’s wildfire season worse and more frequent, turning the City of Angels into a landscape of hellfire. For Jon Christensen, things got way too close for comfort when one of those wildfires encroached upon the University of California-Los Angeles in late October.

Jon Christensen
Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA
“In the middle of the night, around 3 AM, my phone started going off with alerts that there was a major fire just a couple of miles from here along the highway.

And when the alarm went off, you know, at 6:00 in the morning, we got up and turned on the radio and they were talking about closing down the highway. And we soon got notice after that, that the university would also be closed down for the day.

A journalist-in-residence from the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Christensen pointed to the fires as the norm now in the area, not the exception.

Jon Christensen
Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA
You know, as it is a very dramatic close reminder of you know, what some are calling the new abnormal that we’re experiencing now with increasingly dramatic and erratic weather, increasing droughts and increasing fires.”

According to California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as of November 22, 2019, 198,392 acres have burned in the state as a result of wildfires. This year alone, wildfires have sparked 6,190 wildfire related incidents, leading to three fatalities and the destruction of 732 structures. The wildfires have also forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate.

According to the department:

“The length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days, and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state.”

They also list the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons as the most destructive in state history.
The greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, the second largest in the country after New York, is at the epicenter of wildfire country. We spoke to Jessica Kellogg from the Emergency Management Department of the City of Los Angeles.

Jessica Kellogg, MPP
P.I.O. Emergency Management Department, City of L.A.
“Based on our city’s location, we’re in between two mountain ranges, the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains. So we have a lot of homes that meet that urban wildfire interface. So we have to be concerned with clearing brush landscapes and also educating people about what they can do to prepare for wildfires.”

Dry conditions have prompted the National Weather Service to create an entirely new alert level, issuing an “extreme red-flag warning” for fire danger in Los Angeles County and nextdoor Ventura County.

VO: To deal with the threat of wildfires in the region, the City of Los Angeles created a situation room, a communications center in which—during emergency situations—40 specialists from different branches of the city’s emergency bureaucracy coordinate operations with teams on the ground and other government agencies.

Jessica Kellogg, MPP
P.I.O. Emergency Management Department, City of Los Angeles
“We always take into account what happened in the last evacuation, like with the Getty Fire. we’re constantly making changes and reviewing our after-action procedures, to improve the emergency operation plan for the next event.”

The human toll of these new mega-fire events on emergency responders is immense.

In a simple but solemn ceremony held at the Ventura County Government Center on November 15, the name of CALFIRE firefighter Cory Iverson was the 47th added to a memorial wall of those who have fallen in the line of duty. It was added by his widow and daughter.

Iverson became a local symbol. He was 32 when he died battling the Thomas Fire on December 14, 2017, and his wife Ashley was pregnant with their second daughter.

The Thomas Fire scorched Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. According to CALFIRE, it “destroyed at least 1,063 structures, while damaging 280 others, and the fire caused over $2.2 billion in damages, the local agriculture industry suffered at least $171 million in losses, and 27.000 people were evacuated.”

Luis Oreana
Los Padres National Forest USFS, Engine 53
“This is the second time I participated in this memorial. I’ve also participated in a few other firefighter memorials, specifically to their final, their final call, and it’s very sad. It really drives it home when you see family members, their children, and it really makes you think about the people that matter most to you.

The danger factor on the job is something that we do consider. It’s on our mind all the time. But I wouldn’t say that I’m caught in a constant state of fear, though, because that’s why we train”

After the ceremony, The Real News visited the area that had burned just days earlier from the Maria Fire, another megafire, which burned more than 6,500 acres of land. There, we spoke to Brian McGrath, a public information officer for the Ventura County Fire Department.

Brian McGrath
Ventura County Fire Department
“So we’re we’re just leaving the Ventura County fallen firefighter memorial today. We’ve had 47 firefighters that have gone on that Memorial Wall. I had one personal friend, Ryan Osler, who passed away in 2016 from a water generator rollover …and that hit me very hard because it just really brings home that it truly is whenever we go out, we may never come home.”

Christensen emphasized that there is scientific consensus tying the increased intensity and length of California’s fire season to the impacts of climate change.

Jon Christensen
Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA
“Scientists are, you know, climate scientists will debate you know, whether you can attribute any particular fires or set of fires to climate change, but there does seem to be an emerging consensus that you know, the increasing heat, increasing dryness does contribute to the flammability of the landscape.

This year, we are coming off of a very wet winter. So, there was a lot of production of vegetation of grass of shrub leaves and you know, and then we had a very, dry hot summer and it all dried up so there’s a lot of fuel.”

“So, the winds that come in the fall, the dry winds, the Santa Ana winds that that really fuel and push these fires, was pushing the fires West into the neighborhoods of Bel Air and Pacific Palisades and burn and burn houses there and many people were evacuated there.”

One of those scientists is Henry Lin.

He is a postdoctoral Scholar from UCLA’s Center for Climate Science. Lin specializes in the impacts of global warming on regional climate extremes, particularly in the California area.

Yen-Heng (Henry) Lin
Postdoctoral Scholar, Center for Climate Science
“Climate change actually enhances wildfire, but climate change isn’t causing the fire, because it is human and lightning causing the fire. “

Lin is part of a team of scientists working on a project called “California Ecosystem Futures: The Future of California Drought, Fire, and Forest Dieback.”

They use high-resolution computer models of climate, vegetation and fire behavior to answer questions about the future of forests and fire in California. The research project began in 2018 and will extend through the year 2021.

Yen-Heng (Henry) Lin
Postdoctoral Scholar, Center for Climate Science
“So, from our research we found, actually, that due to global warming in California, it can get much dryer and much warmer, which can enhance the risk of wildfire and make larger wildfires.

Another key factor is that people build their houses in areas prone to fire, so it is a high risk for people.”

Christensen said that while scientists are worried about the impacts of climate change in fueling more intense and more frequent wildfires, he believes it is better to move the narrative from problems to solutions.

Jon Christensen
Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA
“I think seeing every fire or series of fires or other natural disasters as the apocalypse that it is a sign of the end times really prevents us from understanding that longer narrative that we need to focus on, which is that around the world, countries, cities, states, other jurisdictions are working to reduce carbon emissions.

Are they doing it fast enough? No, we need to do it faster and the path envisioned in the Paris Accords is to continually do it faster, get better at it, ramp it up so that by 2050 we get to carbon neutrality and climate stability.

One of those solutions proposed by climate advocates: putting a halt to sprawl-style housing development. It’s a real estate planning paradigm currently reigning supreme in LA County. But it’s also one currently subject to ongoing political struggle in the region.


Oscar León

Video Editor

Oscar León is an experienced international press correspondent and documentary filmmaker based in Arizona. His work has reached continental TV broadcast in many occasions on Telesur, ECTV, Ecuavisa, Radio Canada, Canal Uno and even Fox Sports Latin America and El Garaje TV; he has been a TRNN correspondent since 2010. Oscar has reported from as many as 9 countries and more than 12 cities in US; his coverage includes TV reports, special reports and TV specials, not only covering social movements, politics and economics but environmental issues, culture and sports as well. This includes the series "Reportero del Sur", "Occupy USA - El Otoño Americano", "Habia una vez en Arizona", "Motor X" all TV mini series broadcasted to all Americas and "Once upon a time in Arizona" finalist in Radio Canada's "Migration" 2010 contest.

Steve Horn

Climate Change Reporter

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website DeSmog.com, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.