A Fiery Future

A Fiery Future

Experts say climate change is driving up temperatures and the likelihood of wildfires

By Kayla Irby , Kevin Uhrich 08/01/2013

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With California experiencing more devastating wildfires than ever at this time of year, scientists, public officials and some mainstream news agencies have been telling us that dangerously high temperatures and dry conditions caused by climate change are here to stay, sure to push to the limit firefighters’ ability to battle one blaze after another.

But wait a minute. Aren’t wildfires something more likely to occur in late September, with the onset of hot, dry Santa Ana winds creating acres of tinder by drawing out any remaining moisture from water-deprived trees and fauna?

At one time they were, but apparently no longer, with global warming being blamed for extreme high temperatures affecting several parts of the country, not just Southern California, with deadly consequences. 

In California, where wildfires are relatively common, the state’s extended fire season first captured headlines with the Springs fire in Camarillo on May 2. In that blaze, mercurial winds blew the flames in one direction after another for nine days until Ventura County firefighters and a host of helpers from LA County and elsewhere had it fully contained. As one homeowner described the scene to a Los Angeles Times reporter, “It’s raining ash in Camarillo.” 

By the time it was over, the inferno had scorched 24,251 acres, destroying 10 buildings and damaging six commercial properties and 15 homes. The blaze, according to the Times, caused more than $4.5 million in estimated damage.

A month later, the 30,000-acre Powerhouse fire erupted in northern Los Angeles County, in Angeles National Forest, near Santa Clarita, destroying 30 homes along with 29 outbuildings, and forcing thousands to evacuate. The total damage caused by that fire was estimated at $11.4 million. At that time, various news agencies were reporting that wildfires were burning out of control in northern New Mexico, Colorado and Alaska. 

The Powerhouse fire marked the state’s 36th major wildfire since January, with 22 much lesser though still worrisome blazes occurring in Southern California: San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Kern, Inyo, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. 

On July 15, the Mountain fire erupted in Riverside County, prompting evacuations and resulting in the destruction of 23 structures, seven of them homes. Six people were injured in the more than 27,000-acre wildfire, which had not been fully contained as of last Thursday. What didn’t get much mention was the Water fire in Kern County, which scorched more than 600 acres beginning on July 23.
All told, Southland wildfires have swept across more than 107,875 acres since the Feb. 28 Jurupa fire in Riverside County, which burned 311 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. Since the more than 30,000-acre Powerhouse fire on May 30, there have been 51 wildfires statewide, 32 of them occurring in Northern California, which saw a total of 43 fires burn 14,731 acres since January, according to Cal Fire.

Hotter, drier, longer
Perhaps the year’s most widely known wildfire occurred on June 28 in Prescott, Ariz., some 70 miles northwest of Phoenix, resulting in the deaths of 19 firefighters, 14 of those men in their 20s, and some of them from Southern California. The 8,400-acre Yarnell Hill fire, which injured 23 people, destroyed 129 structures and was only declared 100 percent contained on July 11, was described by Reuters News Service as “the worst US wildland firefighting tragedy in 80 years.” According to the National Fire Protection Association, 29 firefighters in Los Angeles died battling a blaze in Griffith Park in 1933. According to the country’s top firefighting officials, more wildfires can be expected to erupt at various locations throughout the remainder of the year.
 
“Hotter, drier, a longer fire season, and lot more homes that we have to deal with,” Thomas Tidwell, chief of the United States Forest Service, told The Guardian newspaper following an appearance before Congress in June. 
 
Arguing against proposed fire crew staffing cuts, Tidwell said wildfire season around the country now lasts two months longer than it did four decades ago with the increasingly warm and arid conditions produced by climate change. Because of this, Tidwell told lawmakers simply, “We are going to continue to have large wildfires.”
 
While fire officials and scientists are quick to blame the increase in wildfires on climate change and global warming, most media outlets are not. According to Media Matters for America, an industry watchdog group, ”[R]esearch indicates that climate change, and the extreme heat and drought conditions it propagates in the Southwest, boosts the chances that they will happen and cause significant damage. Indeed, seven out of nine fire scientists contacted by Media Matters as part of a 2012 study agreed that journalists should detail the role of climate change in worsening risk when they report on such fires,” the July 11 report states. 
 
“Despite this, a survey of papers in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah found that coverage of recent wildfires only mentioned the role of climate change about 4.5 percent of the time — less than half as often as major national papers (9.4 percent). Of state papers that published at least 10 articles on wildfires, the Salt Lake Tribune (8 percent), the Denver Post (7 percent) and the Sacramento Bee (7 percent) referenced climate change most often. The Arizona Republic, San Jose Mercury News, U-T San Diego, the Orange County Register, and San Francisco Chronicle did not mention climate change at all in their wildfire coverage.”

Having a heat wave
Reported or not, these climate change patterns are likely to continue into the foreseeable future for one reason: The world really is getting warmer.

“Heat waves are becoming more frequent, longer and hotter,” said JPL climatologist Bill Patzert, who has long warned of “urban heat islands,” or overly developed metropolitan areas around the world being the main cause of this effect.

Recent freak rains around Los Angeles will have no effect on dampening surrounding hillsides enough to prevent fires, Frank Vidales, acting chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Forestry Division, told the Glendale News-Press. In 2009, more than 160,000 acres of hillsides in Glendale, La Crescenta, Acton, Sunland, Tujunga, La Cañada Flintridge and Altadena were consumed, killing two firefighters and destroying 209 structures, among them 89 homes.

“This is a very dangerous fire season. Usually we have our worst fire danger in October, but we’re there right now in terms of [brush] moisture,” Vidales told reporter Joe Piasecki.

“For every record low, there are four record highs. Global warming is a partial explanation. It’s warmer!” Patzert wrote in an email to the Pasadena Weekly. “Our research shows that in SoCal, the local and regional ‘urban heat island’ has jacked up daytime and, especially, nighttime temps by almost 5 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the past century. This is due to the population explosion; 4 million folks in SoCal in 1950, 20 million now.”

Urban furnaces
In the report “Heat Waves in Southern California: Are They Becoming More Frequent and Longer Lasting?” Patzert joins scientists Arbi Tamrazian of Cal Berkeley, Steve LaDochy of Cal State LA and Josh Willis of JPL in pointing out that global climate models have predicted more intense, more frequent and longer-lasting heat waves in North America and Europe in the near future.

Using daily maximum and daily minimum temperatures recorded by the Los Angeles Department of Water from 1906 to 2006, the scientists looked at long-term trends, finding that heat waves with temperatures of 90 degrees F and above per day lasting longer than six days occurred regularly after the 1970s, but were nonexistent from 1906 until September 1956, when the first six-day heat wave was recorded. 

“Because of its location, Los Angeles experiences mild winters and hot summer weather,” the study notes. “However, due to urbanization, Los Angeles has been steadily warming. According to the United States Census, the population in Los Angeles in 1910 was 319,198. By 2005 that number had jumped to a staggering 3,844,829. The heating of Los Angeles can be attributed to the urban heat island effect. Mostly occurring in metropolitan areas, the heat island can increase the temperature of the urban air by 2 to 10 degrees F when compared to the surrounding countryside.”

Although the urban heat island effect can be considered the greatest contributor to the gradual heating in Los Angeles, global warming plays a significant role, according to the report.

“The global average temperature has increased by about 1.3 degrees F in the past century, so we conclude that global warming contributes about 26.5 percent to the overall gradual heating occurring in Los Angeles,” the report states. “A direct consequence of warming temperatures in Los Angeles is more frequent occurrences of heat waves and extreme heat days.”

Along with heat waves, the study found heat days have increased by what researchers called “a staggering 22.8 occurrences per year over the 100-year study period.” Also, “cold days, where the high temperature is below 45 F, decline over the study period.”
 
And, as temperatures continue to climb, the likelihood of an increase in wildfires only goes up, according to the report “The Age of Western Wildfires.” 

“Given the connection between wildfire trends and climatic factors such as temperatures and seasonal snowpack, it’s not surprising that scientists project that fires will increase in the coming decades,” according to the report. 

“If atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase globally, climate models predict the Western US will get even hotter and drier by the end of this century,” states the report, produced by Climate Central, a group of scientists and journalists studying the affects of global warming.

Vigilance pays
“I call it SoCal’s ‘extreme makeover,’” Patzert wrote of the urban heat island phenomenon. The region, he noted, used to be chaparral. “Now it’s freeways, suburbs, shopping centers, blacktop, black roofs, etc. This effect is noted all over the planet with the growth of megalopolises. Each heat wave is different. So attributing an individual heat wave or trends to, simply, global warming is too simple. Global warming is the real deal and I’ve been sounding the alarm for a few decades. But population, bad zoning and construction, poverty, education and crooked politicians are the immediate cause of our expanding ills,” he wrote.

“When you tout global warming as the cause of everything, it’s paralyzing …. ‘I can’t do anything about that!’ How about voting for some folks that will pass some legislation and enforce some forward-thinking environmental and socially conscious laws,” Patzert wrote. 

Citing a study prepared by the National Interagency Fire Center, Climate Central reported the total area burned in the 2012 fire season was 30 percent more than in an average year, “and fires have consumed more than 8.6 million acres, an area larger than the state of Maryland. … Studies show that continued climate change is going to make wildfires much more common in the coming decades.”
 
In Pasadena, Fire Department spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said that, with no relief from high temperatures and dry conditions in sight, firefighters can do little else but prepare for the worst, plan for emergencies with other public safety agencies, educate the public about the stakes and be vigilant.

“A lot of foothills have not been burned for years and we want to keep it that way,” Derderian said. 

“The public can help by complying with brush clearance,” she said. “Even leaving a dog bowl made out of metal can spark fire in extreme temperatures. Be conscientious about that, use a lot of common sense, be more vigilant.”

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