Climate change and California fires


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Sarah Gronseth kisses her dog Branch in the bed of a truck in a parking lot, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Chico Calif. Gronseth, a teacher, evacuated some of her high school students in her truck as the fire bore down on the high school in Paradise, Calif. She lost her home in the fire. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Sarah Gronseth kisses her dog Branch in the bed of a truck in a parking lot, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Chico Calif. Gronseth, a teacher, evacuated some of her high school students in her truck as the fire bore down on the high school in Paradise, Calif. She lost her home in the fire. (AP Photo/John Locher)


Jim Clark visits what is left of his home that was demolished by the Camp Fire, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Paradise, Calif. "When the disaster's over it's about saving the life that's left," said Clark, who came up with an animal rescue group to check on his goats. The goats all survived. (AP Photo/John Locher)


Wildfire evacuee Greg Gibson looks for information about his missing neighbors at The Neighborhood Church in Chico, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. The fire exploded so quickly, Gibson said, that he first noticed the bottom of a shed burning about one-quarter of a mile from his house and by the time he reached the home he shares with an elderly woman, the fire was on all sides. He helped his 79-year-old roommate into her car and they fled. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)


N. California fires death toll now at 48; many still missing

By MARTHA MENDOZA and GILLIAN FLACCUS

Associated Press

Wednesday, November 14

CHICO, Calif. (AP) — A message board at a shelter for the many people who fled California’s deadliest wildfire is filled with photos of the missing, as well as pleas for any information about relatives and friends.

“I hope you are okay,” reads one hand written note on the board filled with white and yellow sheets of notebook paper. Another had a picture of a missing man: “If seen, please have him call.”

Authorities on Tuesday reported six more fatalities from the Northern California blaze, bringing the total number of dead so far to 48. They haven’t disclosed the total number still missing, but earlier in the week that figure was more than 200.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said a list of the missing would be released soon and that 100 National Guard troops would help teams already looking for remains.

“We want to be able to cover as much ground as quickly as we possibly can,” he said. “This is a very difficult task.”

As authorities increased efforts, people waited for any word on those still not found.

Greg Gibson was one of the people searching the message board Tuesday, hoping to find information about his neighbors. They’ve been reported missing, but he doesn’t know if they tried to escape or hesitated a few minutes longer than he did before fleeing Paradise, the town of 27,000 which was consumed last Thursday. About 7,700 homes were destroyed.

“It happened so fast. It would have been such an easy decision to stay, but it was the wrong choice,” Gibson said from the Neighborhood Church in Chico, California.

More than 1,000 people were at shelters set up for evacuees.

Inside the church, evacuee Harold Taylor chatted with newfound friends.

Taylor, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran who walks with a cane, said he received a call Thursday morning to evacuate immediately. He saw the flames leaping up behind his house, left with the clothes on his back and barely made it out alive.

Along the way, he tried to convince his neighbor to get in his car and evacuate with him, but the neighbor declined. He doesn’t know what happened to his friend.

“We didn’t have 10 minutes to get out of there,” he said. “It was already in flames downtown, all the local restaurants and stuff,” he said.

The search for the dead was drawing on portable devices that can identify someone’s genetic material in a couple of hours, rather than days or weeks.

“In many circumstances, without rapid DNA technology, it’s just such a lengthy process,” says Frank DePaolo, a deputy commissioner of the New York City medical examiners’ office, which has been at the forefront of the science of identifying human remains since 9/11 and is exploring how it might use a rapid DNA device.

Before the Paradise tragedy, the deadliest single fire on record in California was a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles that killed 29.

At the other end of the state, firefighters made progress against a massive blaze that has killed two people in star-studded Malibu and destroyed well over 400 structures in Southern California.

The flames roared to life again in a mountainous wilderness area Tuesday, sending up a huge plume of smoke near the community of Lake Sherwood. Still, firefighters made gains.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he canceled a trip to Asia and will visit the fire zones Wednesday and Thursday.

The cause of the fires remained under investigation, but they broke out around the time and place two utilities reported equipment trouble. Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who takes office in January, sidestepped questions about what action should be taken against utilities if their power lines are found to be responsible.

People who lost homes in the Northern California blaze sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Tuesday, accusing the utility of negligence and blaming it for the fire. An email to PG&E was not immediately returned.

Linda Rawlings was on a daylong fishing trip with her husband and 85-year-old father when the fire broke out.

Her next-door neighbors opened the back gate so her three dogs could escape before they fled the flames and the dogs were picked up several days later waiting patiently in the charred remains of their home, she said.

Rawlings learned on Tuesday morning — after days of uncertainty — that her “Smurf blue” home in Magalia was burnt to the ground.

She sat looking shell-shocked on the curb outside a hotel in Corning.

“Before, you always have hope,” she said. “You don’t want to give up. But now we know.”

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Sudhin Thanawala, Janie Har, Jocelyn Gecker and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco.

The Conversation

Climate change and wildfires – how do we know if there is a link?

Updated November 10, 2018

Author

Kevin Trenberth

Distinguished Senior Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research

Disclosure statement

Kevin Trenberth has received funding from the Department of Energy in addition to base funding from the National Science Foundation

Once again, the summer and fall of 2018 in the Northern Hemisphere has brought us an epidemic of major wildfires.

These burn forests, houses and other structures, displace thousands of people and animals, and cause major disruptions in people’s lives. The huge burden of simply firefighting has become a year-round task costing billions of dollars, let alone the cost of the destruction. The smoke veil can extend hundreds or even thousands of miles, affecting air quality and visibility. To many people, it has become very clear that human-induced climate change plays a major role by greatly increasing the risk of wildfire.

Yet it seems the role of climate change is seldom mentioned in many or even most news stories about the multitude of fires and heat waves. In part this is because the issue of attribution is not usually clear. The argument is that there have always been wildfires, and how can we attribute any particular wildfire to climate change?

As a climate scientist, I can say this is the wrong framing of the problem. Global warming does not cause wildfires. The proximate cause is often human carelessness (cigarette butts, camp fires not extinguished properly, etc.), or natural, from “dry lightning” whereby a thunderstorm produces lightning but little rain. Rather, global warming exacerbates the conditions and raises the risk of wildfire.

Even so, there is huge complexity and variability from one fire to the next, and hence the attribution can become complex. Instead, the way to think about this is from the standpoint of basic science – in this case, physics.

Global warming is happening

To understand the interplay between global warming and wildfires, consider what’s happening to our planet.

The composition of the atmosphere is changing from human activities: There has been over a 40 percent increase in carbon dioxide, mainly from fossil fuel burning since the 1800s, and over half of the increase is since 1985. Other heat-trapping gases (methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) are also increasing in concentration in the atmosphere from human activities. The rates are accelerating, not declining (as hoped for with the Paris Agreement).

This leads to an energy imbalance for the planet.

Heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere act as a blanket and inhibit the infrared radiation – that is, heat from the Earth – from escaping back into space to offset the continual radiation coming from the sun. As these gases build up, more of this energy, mostly in the form of heat, remains in our atmosphere. The energy raises the temperature of the land, oceans and atmosphere, melts ice, thaws permafrost and fuels the water cycle through evaporation.

Moreover, we can estimate Earth’s energy imbalance quite well: It amounts to about 1 watt per square meter, or about 500 terawatts globally.

While this factor is small compared with the natural flow of energy through the system, which is 240 watts per square meter, it is large compared with all other direct effects of human activities. For instance, the electrical power generation in the U.S. last year averaged 0.46 terawatts.

The extra heat is always the same sign and it is spread across the globe. Accordingly, where this energy accumulates matters.

Tracking the Earth’s energy imbalance

The heat mostly accumulates ultimately in the ocean – over 90 percent. This added heat means the ocean expands and sea level rises.

Heat also accumulates in melting ice, causing melting Arctic sea ice and glacier losses in Greenland and Antarctica. This adds water to the ocean, and so the sea level rises from this as well, rising at a rate of over 3 milimeters year, or over a foot per century.

Global ocean heat content for the top 2000 meters of the ocean, with uncertainty estimates by the pink region. ScienceAdvances, CC BY-NC

On land, the effects of the energy imbalance are complicated by water. If water is present, the heat mainly goes into evaporation and drying, and that feeds moisture into storms, which produce heavier rain. But the effects do not accumulate provided that it rains on and off.

However, in a dry spell or drought, the heat accumulates. Firstly, it dries things out, and then secondly it raises temperatures. Of course, “it never rains in Southern California” according to the 1970s pop song, at least in the summer half year.

So water acts as the air conditioner of the planet. In the absence of water, the excess heat effects accumulate on land both by drying everything out and wilting plants, and by raising temperatures. In turn, this leads to heat waves and increased risk of wildfire. These factors apply in regions in the western U.S. and in regions with Mediterranean climates. Indeed many of the recent wildfires have occurred not only in the West in the United States but also in Portugal, Spain, Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean.

The conditions can also develop in other parts of the world when strong high pressure weather domes (anticyclones) stagnate, as can happen in part by chance, or with increased odds in some weather patterns such as those established by either La Niña or El Niño events (in different places). It is expected that these dry spots move around from year to year, but that their abundance increases over time, as is clearly happening.

How big is the energy imbalance effect over land? Well, 1 watt per square meter over a month, if accumulated, is equivalent to 720 watts per square meter over one hour; 720 watts is equivalent to full power in a small microwave oven. One square meter is about 10 square feet. Hence, after one month this is equivalent to one microwave oven at full power every square foot for six minutes. No wonder things catch on fire!

Attribution science

Coming back to the original question of wildfires and global warming, this explains the argument: There is extra heat available from climate change, and the above indicates just how large it is.

In reality there is moisture in the soil, and plants have root systems that tap soil moisture and delay the effects before they begin to wilt, so that it typically takes over two months for the effects to be large enough to fully set the stage for wildfires. On a day-to-day basis, the effect is small enough to be lost in the normal weather variability. But after a dry spell of over a month, the risk is noticeably higher. And of course the global mean surface temperature is also going up.

“We can’t attribute a single event to climate change” has been a mantra of climate scientists for a long time. It has recently changed, however.

As in the wildfires example, there has been a realization that climate scientists may be able to make useful statements by assuming that the weather events themselves are relatively unaffected by climate change. This is a good assumption.

Also, climate scientists cannot say that extreme events are due to global warming, because that is a poorly posed question. However, we can say it is highly likely that they would not have had such extreme impacts without global warming. Indeed, all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.

In particular, by focusing on Earth’s energy imbalance, new research is expected to advance the understanding of what is happening and why, and what it implies for the future.

Sarah Gronseth kisses her dog Branch in the bed of a truck in a parking lot, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Chico Calif. Gronseth, a teacher, evacuated some of her high school students in her truck as the fire bore down on the high school in Paradise, Calif. She lost her home in the fire. (AP Photo/John Locher)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2018/11/web1_121773358-dfbf7a11baf6438f9321321ab5232e03.jpgSarah Gronseth kisses her dog Branch in the bed of a truck in a parking lot, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Chico Calif. Gronseth, a teacher, evacuated some of her high school students in her truck as the fire bore down on the high school in Paradise, Calif. She lost her home in the fire. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Jim Clark visits what is left of his home that was demolished by the Camp Fire, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Paradise, Calif. "When the disaster’s over it’s about saving the life that’s left," said Clark, who came up with an animal rescue group to check on his goats. The goats all survived. (AP Photo/John Locher)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2018/11/web1_121773358-46a38d0896e74d45b48ba7137f239913.jpgJim Clark visits what is left of his home that was demolished by the Camp Fire, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Paradise, Calif. "When the disaster’s over it’s about saving the life that’s left," said Clark, who came up with an animal rescue group to check on his goats. The goats all survived. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Wildfire evacuee Greg Gibson looks for information about his missing neighbors at The Neighborhood Church in Chico, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. The fire exploded so quickly, Gibson said, that he first noticed the bottom of a shed burning about one-quarter of a mile from his house and by the time he reached the home he shares with an elderly woman, the fire was on all sides. He helped his 79-year-old roommate into her car and they fled. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2018/11/web1_121773358-b44039c9306947a7a0ca9924e388e9ca.jpgWildfire evacuee Greg Gibson looks for information about his missing neighbors at The Neighborhood Church in Chico, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. The fire exploded so quickly, Gibson said, that he first noticed the bottom of a shed burning about one-quarter of a mile from his house and by the time he reached the home he shares with an elderly woman, the fire was on all sides. He helped his 79-year-old roommate into her car and they fled. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
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