With the Dems wrapping their virtual centrist-Left infomercial Thursday last and the GOP about to crank up their live/virtual right-wing propaganda machine, politics is today’s hot topic. In this smoke-filled lull between conventions, let me tangent to another hot one: the California wildfires.
Actually, let me double-tangent for a quick sec, because I’ve only just learned that the rhetorical term for inventing a word or expression by using one part of speech or word class in place of another (as in using the noun “tangent” as a verb) is anthimeria.
Hey, no eye rolling, please. Cool grammar gives me a cheap thrill. In times like these, we take our pleasures where we may.
Right, so California is on fire again.
Major on fire, disastrously on fire, way beyond the old-normal forest fire on fire. Annual massive, hard-to-contain, habitat-destroying, life-taking, soul-depressing conflagrations that devastate huge portions of our state — open lands and populated areas alike — are clearly the new norm.
In 2017, there were nearly 6,000 more wildfires in California than in 2016, and acreage burned (10 million) nearly doubled. That was the year of the Tubbs Fire (in our ‘hood), the Atlas Fire, and the Thomas Fire, which ranks as the second largest in state history.
In part thanks to vastly amplified prevention efforts, the tally dropped in 2018 to a mere 58,083 wildfires, though 8.8 million acres were still lost. Pushing the old-normal start of the fire season back about 3 months, the Carr Fire and the Mendocino Complex, our biggest fire to date, broke out in July. Toward the end of the season, early November, we got the Hill Fire, the Woolsey Fire, and the infamous Camp Fire, the current title-holder for California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record.
While the Golden State held onto top spot for number of fires and number of acres burned last year, 2019 was almost a respite for firefighters, with just 8,194 wildfires recorded and 4.7 million acres burned. Didn’t catch a break around here, though. The Kincade Fire reduced a chunk of Sonoma County about twice the size of San Francisco to ash.
The spark that kindled many of these disasters was, quite literally, corporate greed. From 2014 through 2019, more than 1,500 fires were caused by the deliberate negligence of Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in tending to their equipment and trimming the verge around their towers and lines.
An investor-owned utility with publicly-traded stock, PG&E is the leading subsidiary of PG&E Corporation. PG&E Corp has been the largest electric utility business in the US since 1984, with a market capitalization of $3.242 billion as of January 2019.
State regulators attest that PG&E’s guiding principles (if they can be called that) are their bottom line and reported earnings, that they are lacking a comprehensive safety strategy, that communications between management and field personnel regarding safety are unclear, and that they prefer taking action after a major disaster to preventing the disaster in the first place.
No duh. Check out this excellent online New York Times article, “How PG&E Ignored Fire Risks in Favor of Profits” (just click on the title) for excruciating details. The cunning map-scroll feature at the top of the article is worth the price of admission, trust me.
Then there’s climate change.
The risk of wildfire is gauged by several factors, such as soil moisture, the availability of fuel (trees, shrubs, grasses), and temperature. All of these factors are tied to climate change and climate variability. The Tubbs Fire, for example, had a f*ck-ton of fuel to burn thanks to a 6-year drought that had only ended the previous winter with record rainfall. Mama Nature went crazy pumping out the greenery, then summer hit. (Northern California, remember, has 2 seasons: Wet (winter) and Dry (summer). By October, we had unprecedented amounts of tinder ready to burst into flames at the slightest provocation.
Thanks to climate change, the planet is warmer. This means forest fuels — the organic matter than burns and spreads wildfires — are drier. Between 1984 and 2015, these sere conditions doubled the number of large fires in the Western US. The new-normal warm and dry conditions contribute to larger populations of the mountain pine beetle and other insects that can weaken or kill trees, adding to the forest fuels. And ask any firefighter, warmer temperatures and drier conditions make it easier for wildfires to spread and harder to put them out.
The research is undeniable . . . though, of course, we’ve got eejits all over the place and mega-eejits in high places denying it all the time.
Global changes in the climate are creating more drought and a longer fire season, aka a higher risk of wildfire. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), projections show an annual 1-deg C increase in temperature would increase the median burned area per year up to 600% in some areas, with at least a 30% increase in areas burned by lightning-ignited wildfires between 2011 and 2060.
Which brings me, at long last, to our present situation.
Another quirk of the old-normal Northern California climate (in addition to the 2-seasons thing) is the distinct lack of thunderstorms during the Wet months and utter lack of summer thunder-showers during the Dry months. Those summer lightning-storms are the meteorological event I’ve missed most in my nearly half-century living in Nor-Cal. Missed, but never wished for — because omg, if it’s not going to rain throughout the summer, the last thing we need is a bunch of lightning strikes zapping our towns and farms, our redwood forests and summer-yellow hills.
But that’s exactly what we got. Only no showers. Just dry lightning.
The Cal-Fire website (feels like visiting an old friend) tells us that since the “lightning siege” started on Saturday 15 August, there have been nearly 12,000 lightning strikes sparking 615 new wildfires that have already burned over 1.1 million acres.
As I write this, over 14,000 firefighters are facing more than 2 dozen major fires and lightning complexes statewide. With more lightning anticipated, the focus is on strengthening containment lines and burning away vegetation in an attempt to slow the spread of the wildfires.
The one that has the bulk of my attention is the LNU Complex, one of the wildfires triggered by the 100 lightning strikes that blasted our state on Friday 17 August. It’s a monster, burning in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano, and Yolo counties and so far devouring 350,030 acres. Oh, and it’s officially the 3rd largest wildfire in California history. Gosh, every year we’re setting new records.
Good news, it’s 22% contained. First few days it was 0% contained. All firefighting efforts are short-handed, because the work-force California has used for decades to fight fires — shamefully under-paid prison labor — is depleted, thanks to a sane and necessary early release program designed to protect prisoners and prison staff from COVID-19. With fires in the south of the state already having laid claim to firefighters and equipment to battle on their behalf, the LNU Complex had days to spread before facing adequate resistance.
Well, the Republicans got going while I was still looking for images to spice up this essay. Guess that’s my cue to circle back to politics for my finisher.
Last Thursday, with firefighters battling hundreds of blazes all over the state, Donald Jerkwad Trump threatened to withhold emergency funding because we hadn’t followed his advice and raked up all our leaves.
“Maybe we’re just going to have them pay for it because they don’t listen to us. We say you’ve got to get rid of the leaves, you’ve got to get rid of the debris, you got to get rid of the fallen trees.”
I do agree with him about getting rid of the debris. In D.C., that is.