As California Burns, Experts Anticipate a “New Normal”

By Elena Leander

Tens of thousands of Californians have evacuated as massive fires, driven by intense winds, rage in both Northern and Southern California. The Camp Fire in Butte County, which destroyed the town of Paradise, grew to 70,000 acres overnight. It sent up a pall of smoke that has triggered air quality advisories across a large swath of the northern part of the state, including the Bay Area. In the South, two fires—the Hill and Woolsey fires—are being fanned by Santa Ana Winds and have forced some 75,000 homes to be evacuated in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties.

The latest fires bring to mind the words of Governor Jerry Brown, who last December warned Californians that the Thomas Fire, then-raging through Ventura and Santa Barbara, signaled a “new normal” in which intense wildfires would burn in the state year-round. Thomas claimed over 280,000 acres and 1,000 structures, ranking it as the largest California fire in modern history. Then, in August, the Mendocino Complex Fire broke that record, consuming nearly 460,000 acres. In the aftermath, Brown repeated his warning, presaging “more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it, more adaptation and more prevention. All that is the new normal we have to face.”

But the phrase “new normal” is problematic as it implies a flat trend line. If climate change is accelerating, why wouldn’t fires follow suit? Along with other experts, Bill Stewart, co-director of the UC Berkeley Center for Forestry, predicts “a continuing increase in wildfire probability and more people moving into harm’s way.” In other words, expect destruction from fires to get worse before leveling off.

As that trend plays out, here are a few emerging norms we count on:

Year-round wildfire

In issuing his warnings Brown used the ominous phrase “firefighting at Christmas,” but December fires are not unknown in the Southland, according to Dr. Sabrina Drill, a Natural Resources Advisor at the UC Cooperative Extension. Drill says that Valentine’s Day or Easter fires would be far rarer than Yuletide ones in the southern part of the state.

While Christmas fires in the northern part of the state are unprecedented, last year’s Napa fires, which blazed into Halloween, and the current fires burning in Butte County, suggest they may be coming. Because of this shifting reality, Cal Fire, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, now has over 200 firefighter crews operating year-round.

Tighter budgets

The longer fire season and increasing number of people living in fire-prone areas have sent the cost of fighting wildfires soaring. Just a month into Fiscal Year 2018, the state had already spent a quarter of its $443 million firefighting budget. And, at the beginning of September, normally the end of fire season in much of the state, Cal Fire requested $234 million more to continue its work. Thanks to emergency funds, the state has been able to pay the fire costs to date, even with seven of the last ten years outstripping budgets. For the next five years, Brown warned, numbers are looking tighter, and there will be even less money to burn.

According to Keith Gilless, UC Berkeley Professor of Forest Economics and former Dean of the College of Natural Resources, there is a “nonlinear and inverse relationship” between the money you spend preparing to suppress fires and the money you spend fighting them. In other words, spending more money prepping for fire season can significantly reduce the financial burden later on. To save in the long run, Gilless suggests more proactive fuel reduction, closer attention to building codes, and making sure firefighters have the equipment and support they need to do their jobs effectively.

More time indoors

Amid increasing pollution from wildfires, health experts are warning about the dangers of smoke exposure. Dr. John Balmes of Berkeley’s School of Public Health remembers, during last fall’s fires, teaching a class on air pollution to a room full of masked students. Masks are once again in evidence around campus as air quality in the Bay Area has reached Beijing levels of particulate pollution. People sensitive to air quality issues are advised to stay indoors with windows closed.

Meanwhile, the smoke is an eerie reminder of the deadly Oakland Hills Fire, and indeed the risk of fire is currently rated extreme in the East Bay Regional Parks.

Dr. Balmes says that even if urban areas don’t burn, smoke from fires in distant rural areas can and will impact health and interfere with outdoor events and activities. “There’s no question that the increased intensity and duration of wildfires has an impact on the quality of life in California.”

The prevalence of N95 masks around campus today is a testament to that fact.

Filed under: Science + Health
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