By: John Grula and Kevin Uhrich
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, many Southern Californians may have thought they had seen the worst Mother Nature could dish out.
But that only lasted until the “megafires” of the fall and the recent deadly mudslides in the Montecito area of Santa Barbara County, where, as of last week, the death toll reached 21.
The largest among a number of virtually concurrently occurring smaller but some similarly devastating fires around Los Angeles and neighboring counties beginning in early December, the Thomas fire burned over 281,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, killed two people, one of them a firefighter, and left thousands without hope and a place to live.
Structures totaling 1,062 – including 775 homes — were consumed in what is now considered the largest wildfire in modern California history. The eruption of the Thomas fire on Dec. 4, and the outbreak in Los Angeles of the Creek and Rye fires on Dec. 5, the Skirball fire on Dec. 6, and other much smaller conflagrations occurring within hours of one another turned the region into a raging inferno.
Rarely mentioned in local newscasts with these disasters are the fires that consumed over 200,000 acres of California wine country in Napa, Mendocino and Sonoma counties in late October, leaving one person dead, 39 injured and 8,499 structures destroyed, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
Before 1995, the US averaged one megafire, or blazes that burn more than 100,000 acres, a year. The US is now experiencing an average of nearly 10 such major fires every year. But tighten your seat belts, with the Los Angeles Times reporting in late December that even more fires may break out in the coming months.
What caused the Thomas and other fires in Southern California during the last two months? Arson and accidents are always possible, but certainly extremely warm and dry conditions, with extremely low humidity and abnormally high Santa Ana winds, were major contributing factors.
The vegetation that had grown as a result of heavy rains in 2016 and early 2017, bringing the state out of a five-year drought, had turned to tinder during summer’s record-breaking heat, fueling fires driven by what Cal Fire spokesman described to reporter Georgina Gustin of insideclimatenews.org as “epic winds,” some reaching hurricane speed.
In mid-January, heavy rains drenched denuded hillsides and swelled Montecito’s four creeks, with torrents of water ultimately creating rapidly moving mudslides and debris flows that consumed people, homes, cars and anything else in their path. Along with claiming 21 lives, mudslides resulting from the Thomas fire destroyed 73 homes and damaged hundreds more, according to Cal Fire.
Three lawsuits that were filed weeks after the blaze allege that a Southern California Edison work crew negligently started the Thomas fire. One of the suits, filed by nine residents whose homes in Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai were either destroyed or damaged in the fire, also names as defendants the city of Ventura and Casitas Municipal Water District. USA Today reports a lack of water pressure to fire hydrants in Ventura and Ojai prevented firefighters battling the blaze and saving homes.
Edison has refused to comment on any of the suits. City and water district officials declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Cal Fire said it is still investigating and no cause of the blaze has been determined.
However those cases might be decided, the fact remains parched conditions that fueled the fires are a symptom of climate change. As of Dec. 18, Los Angeles reported only 4 percent of its historic average for rainfall since Oct. 1 and the Sierra Nevada snowpack stood at 34 percent of normal. Things have improved a little with the January rains and snowfall, and reservoirs are reportedly full. But now, with little to no rainfall in December, climatologists are concerned California is about to fall back into a deep drought.
“It is still too early to be truly alarmed about the lack of rainfall, but we are certainly watching it closely, and I think it’s appropriate to express some concern,” Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources in Sacramento, recently told the San Jose Mercury News.
As last year’s hurricanes and our recent experiences show, we are by no means immune to the worsening ravages of climate change.
Our complacent mayor, Terry Tornek, needs to recognize opportunity when it knocks and join the 385 other mayors who have expressed support for the Paris Climate Agreement that our buffoonish president has repudiated. In fact, dozens of these officials met in Chicago in early December at a conference hosted by that city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and attended by his onetime boss, former President Obama, according to The New York Times.
“Cities are stepping into the void of leadership,” said Emanuel, a fierce critic of President Trump.
Just think of the networking possibilities for our mayor in Chicago, with Obama and Emanuel and all the other mayors. Think how much they want what we have in terms of advanced technology, i.e. Caltech, JPL and other research organizations. Think how many of them want to be here and not there, with their intolerably cold winters, which are only getting colder. And what do they have that we may need?
In these times of deadly blizzards, hurricanes, fires and mudslides, it appears leadership has never been more needed to both mitigate the negative environmental impacts of climate change and protect us against whatever else Mother Nature has in store.
John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists. Kevin Uhrich is editor of the Pasadena Weekly. Reach him at pasadenaweekly.com.