Wildfires are Leveling LA Neighborhoods, Is There More to Come?
TRNN’s Climate Crisis Bureau speaks to leading experts to examine how climate change has contributed to the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California
SHARMINI PERIES: California is in a state of emergency. Los Angeles is facing an unprecedented fire threat with more than 300,000 people under orders to evacuate. Winds are up to 80 miles an hour according to an alert sent by countywide emergency system in Los Angeles. More than 1,000 firefighters are battling unrelenting wildfires that threaten more than 12,000 homes in the Ventura area, charring more than 60,000 acres, destroying hundreds of structures,and leaving at least one person dead.
In the meantime in L.A., no civilian casualties or fatalities have been reported thus far, but three firefighters were injured said the Los Angeles Fire Department. And hundreds of homes have been destroyed and hundreds of acres have been charred.
ADRINE DAVITYAN: All of the sudden I see, from the other side, fire came to our side. So scary.
RALPH M. TERRAZAS: We are stretched thin. We’re in the middle of a week long red flag condition. We’re not done. We’re projecting that this will be less significant on Friday and we’re only on day three, Wednesday. My firefighters have been working since Sunday. So, our people are getting tired. We are relying on outside resources and agencies to assist us as we continue this effort.
SHARMINI PERIES: Hot, dry Santa Ana winds blowing from Mojave Desert, up to 70 miles per hour, are fueling the fires. And although the story of thousands fleeing their homes and images of what is called Thomas Fire, are casting a glow across the sky and occupying front pages of newspapers. There is little attention in the media linking these extreme weather catastrophes to the effects of human-induced climate change. The Real News recently spoke with leading experts during California’s worst wildfire season on record.
DR. MATTHEW HURTEAU: As temperature has increased due to anthropogenic or human-caused climate change, the area burned by wildfire in the Western US has increased and that’s because Spring snow melt is happening earlier so there’s a longer fire season. At the same time, as temperature is increased, that is increasing the amount of atmospheric water demand. So, basically the movement of water from vegetation in the ecosystem to the atmosphere, which dries out that vegetation and makes it more combustible. And so, those are two climatic factors that are influencing the area burned.
SHARMINI PERIES: California has been experiencing unseasonably high temperatures this Autumn and Winter. Several heat records were smashed across the state in November with temperatures close to 100 degrees fahrenheit according to the National Weather Service. But it turns out it’s not only climate change causing all of this but also forest mismanagement that has contributed to California’s longer fire season. The growing number of destructive fires are increasing the land mass it consumes.
DR. LEROY WESTERLING: If you think about it historically or prehistorically I should say, these might have been really open canopy forests where the fire very often would be down at the surface, burning grass, shrub, and or things like that. And not as much in the canopy of the forests because of the spacing between the trees.
And fire suppression allowed those forests to grow much more densely. In California, Sierra Nevadas, in Southwest and some other parts of the West. And that has actually made it more vulnerable to climate change because as you warm those forests… backward, moisture every year, you’re creating sort of competition for moisture between the individual trees and the drought effects are more severe on them. And when you get fire, now it’s burning through the canopy, it’s not on the surface.
SHARMINI PERIES: There is a growing body of science around possible tipping points whether or not ecosystems will hit a point of no return, causing irreversible climate change. Might wildfires be a contributor to climate change itself from all the burning carbon, which could set off positive feedback loop leading to higher temperatures and in turn more disasters.
DR. JOHN ABATZOGLOU: So, wildfires are a part of the earth’s system and fire is a natural process that we have to remember when talking about this. But at the same time when we see these fires burn, they’re burning above ground carbon and a lot of that is getting back up into the atmosphere and contributing to the atmospheric carbon burden. To some effect, these forests do recover and as they recover they can take up carbon dioxide, etc. How those things actually play out through time is yet to be determined. We have seen a substantial increase in fire activity across the West, across much of Canada and Alaska and we’ve seen a lot of carbon coming off of these landscapes.
SHARMINI PERIES: Are the effects from climate change altering the efficiency of trees themselves in their ability to absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or as scientists call it the “carbon sink ability.”
DR. LEROY WESTERLING: We’ve been looking at integrating statistical models that I do of how fire changes in response due to changes in climate. The interesting thing that we saw is that as you warm things up and you increase the frequency of large fires in Sierra Nevada, you get shifts over time where more and more of the forest becomes a source of carbon and that source of carbon to the atmosphere instead of in that sink.
So, in recent past, these forests have been in that sink. They’ve been growing faster than they’ve been, and taking up carbon faster than they’ve been producing it. But as you warm things up and increase the pace of the fire, they start shifting, so some parts get deforested and other parts are just younger forests and they don’t get a chance to replace the lost carbon before they are affected by the…
SHARMINI PERIES: From California forests to a melting Arctic, there is a clear scientific consensus that we are living in a world warming due to human-caused climate change with effects playing out everywhere. A recent study lead by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory titled, “Future Loss of Arctic Sea Ice Cover Could Drive Substantial Decrease in California’s Rainfall.”
It identified a dangerous new trend in weather with a new link between Arctic sea ice loss and lack of precipitation resulting in significant drying over California, which from 2012 to 2016 experienced one of the worst droughts since record keeping began.
They conclude that sea ice loss of this magnitude expected in the next decade could substantially impact California’s precipitation thus highlighting another mechanism by which human-caused climate change could exacerbate further California droughts and one can extrapolate that this will lead to more wildfires.
DR. MATTHEW HURTEAU: So far this year, the last number I saw is we spent 2.3 billion dollars on fire suppression in the US this year alone. That’s a substantial sum. It’s likely to go up with continued climate change. And so functionally what we need to do from a forest perspective is get out in front of this and start investing in managing our forests to restore surface fire in these lower elevation forest ecosystems and get that natural process back in place so that these systems are a little more resilient to the climate change that’s ongoing.
DR. JOHN ABATZOGLOU: As we move forward, we’re going to see more years like this where we have really, really dry, dry fuels out there. We’re not gonna see a decline in population so we’re gonna see just as many ignitions in the landscape and so we’re just increasing the opportunity for these fires to occur and more and more people living in the wildland urban interface. That’s just setting up a recipe for these sort of catastrophes and disasters. And the longer we wait to do something to mitigate climate change, the bigger this burden is going to be.
SHARMINI PERIES: This is year end 2017 fundraising season here at The Real News network. Do donate to our climate crisis bureau. We believe that climate change is the greatest crises facing humanity.