The California Climate Fires and Our Future Hellscape

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Fire at the Bitterroot River, Montana
Photo by John McColgan, USDA, public domain

Every time there’s been an unusual weather event or a big wildfire in the past few years, the media has asked, “Is this fire/drought/category 4 hurricane due to climate change?” And, because climate scientists are professionals, take their jobs seriously, and are aware of how politicians will jump at the chance to twist their words to suit their own purposes, they are always very cautious about how they phrase their response. Generally it’s something like, “We can never attribute any single event entirely to climate change, but the conditions caused by climate change make extreme events like this increasingly likely and more severe.”

Which is entirely accurate, of course, but it makes for a shitty soundbite and an even worse headline. A lot of people are going to look at a statement like that and shrug. It’s not a yes or a no, which (in their minds) means it’s probably not a big deal. If it were serious, they think, the scientists would say it was serious. They would say, “Yes, this fire happened because we’ve burned too many fossil fuels.” The standard, cautious answers are correct, but they don’t convey any sense of urgency.

During the unprecedented 2020 wildfires in California and other western states this summer (as of this writing they are still burning), the media has invariably asked the same questions as always, and most reporting has provided the same answer, which amounts to “Kind of maybe sort of we can’t really say for sure.”

Well, bullshit.

It’s time to quit pussyfooting around with this shit. The standard answer still applies, of course. The problem is, the standard answer will ALWAYS apply, technically, no matter how bad things get. There have always been wildfires in some areas, and there always will be, provided there is something to burn. There have always been hurricanes and there always will be, provided there are still oceans for them to form over. Climate change didn’t invent wildfires and hurricanes, nor droughts and floods. It makes them more frequent and more extreme, but some are going to happen no matter what.

So… when is it okay for scientists to say, “Yeah, this fire would have been peanuts if we had cut carbon emissions 20 years ago, but we didn’t so now we’re fucked”? How bad does it have to get before we make the decision to just go ahead and attribute these events to climate change? Does the western US have to have pyrotornadoes sweeping across the landscape? Does Miami have to get washed out to sea in a record-breaking storm surge? Sooner or later, there’s no longer much use in being careful about the language we use. Being technically correct won’t really convey the reality of the situation when entire regions are turned into an uninhabitable hellscape. We need to start calling this shit for what it is: not wildfires, but climate fires.

You think YOUR fires are complex…

The Glass, Creek, and August Complex fires in California this year ARE caused by climate change. Maybe technically not exactly 100%, but without climate change, there would almost certainly have been fewer fires this year, and they absolutely would have been smaller. I’m not supposed to make that declaration, because we can’t quantify it. We can’t say that the August Complex fire is 58% bigger than it would have been if we’d cut carbon emissions by 35% 15 years ago, for instance. In order to know that, we would have to have a copy of Earth from 2005, somehow get people in THAT version of Earth to stop burning so much damn coal, and wait for 15 years to see what happens. And of course, if we could do that, we wouldn’t be in such a dire situation to begin with. We can guesstimate such a scenario using computer models, of course, but even then we’re just assigning a percentage chance that a random event is a percentage chance more likely to be a percentage worse. If that sentence didn’t make much sense to you, that’s exactly why it’s sort of useless for telling people what’s really going on out there. Most of us aren’t statisticians, and hardly any of us are climatologists. Such precise and accurate phrasing is lost on us.

Climate fires are fine
Since we’re not 100% certain, don’t worry about it

So how can I say that these fires in California and Oregon are caused by climate change? I’ve got a few points that make my case. First of all, this shit is unprecedented. I mean, look, I can’t tell you they’re the biggest fires in the history of the planet, because most of that time happens before there were good records of it. Plus, fires back then would have just run wild, the native peoples wouldn’t have had much ability to contain them. But for modern times, these things are insanely huge. The August Complex fire alone is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Which I know isn’t saying a whole lot, but still…. damn. The total area burned in the western US this year is bigger than the state of Massachusetts if you add it together. We are having at least twice as much land burn each year during the past decade as we did in the 1990’s, and some years it’s been more like three times as much. What has changed in the past 30 years? Something must be behind this. Is it just those damned millennials and their K-pop avocado toast mobile phone apps? Or is it the average temperature and humidity?

Spoiler Alert: It’s the average temperature and humidity.

Which brings us to my second point in making the case that these fires are due to climate change. The size and intensity of wildfires is directly affected by the air temperature and the “atmospheric vapor pressure deficit”, which sounds like something they might argue about in Congress, but it’s actually just nerd-speak for humidity… not exactly, but it’s close enough for our purposes. The hotter the weather, the more likely fires are to start, the hotter they can burn and the longer they can last. Wood only starts to burn at around 300 degrees Celsius. If the air is 30 degrees C, it takes that much less energy to ignite the fuel and keep it burning than if the air is 25 degrees. It doesn’t sound like much, but those few degrees can make all the difference between a small, quick fire and a huge, intense one. Hotter weather should therefore result in worse fire seasons. Likewise, the drier the air, the drier plants are and the drier the soil and fuel (dead branches and leaves). Drier plants and fuel burn more easily. This is all pretty obvious and intuitive, but it’s worth spelling out. You don’t really need to know much about the science of climate change to see that it’s bound to cause more wildfires, since hotter temps and lower humidity are what’s predicted for the American West by basically all climate models.

California climate fire
Photo copyright Ron Reiring under Creative Commons license

It’s a bit more than that, though. It’s not just the dryness, it’s the timing of it as well. Climate models for California predict that not only will there be less precipitation, the precipitation they do get is going to be concentrated in just 3 months of the year: December, January, and February. In other words, the coldest months of the year. Rain in the fall typically brings the fire season to an end, but not so much anymore. Likewise, drier springs means the fire season can start even earlier. If that precipitation stayed spread out over a longer period of the year, it could help keep the fires from burning for so long, even if it was still less rainfall overall. But that’s not what’s happening. It’s all getting packed in to the coldest months of the year when fires were less likely anyway.

Winter is NOT coming

My third point, then, is that the temperatures in the western US have increased and the humidity has decreased. They say a good graph is worth 18.18 tweets, so here’s one that pretty much says it all:

California avg temp 1900-2019
NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, published September 2020, retrieved on October 7, 2020

You’ve got temps in both Fahrenheit and Celsius on the Y axis, and the years down on the X axis. You can see that the average temp jumps up and down quite a lot, which is why there’s a blue trendline to help you see how it’s changed. That trendline ends up about 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than it started. Though they’re not exactly the same metrics, this still matches up nicely with the current global average of 1.14 C warming. For some context, we used to hope that if we got our lazy butts in gear, we could hold the global average increase to only 1 or 1.5 degrees C. That was our best case scenario, back in happier days when we thought maybe adults would do the right thing, instead of forcing teenage girls to take charge and shame the rest of us. In Cali, we’ve already reached that point, which means the climate fires raging there now are what we had hoped we could limit things to. The dream was to only have an area the size of an entire state on fire every year. Okay, Rhode Island hardly counts, but work with me here.

The second graph shows the total area of all fires in California per year, with the total area of wildfires on the y axis and years on the x, and another trend line to help you out. It only goes back to 1987 because fires were measured differently before then and so the earlier data isn’t really comparable, but otherwise the graphs look pretty similar, don’t they? There’s still a lot of variability, but overall the fires tend to be bigger now than they were 30 years ago. Most notably, the biggest fire years are much bigger in the past 15 years than they used to be. The year 2020 isn’t on that graph because some of those fires are still going, but it’s going to easily be the biggest fire year on record for California, with the current tally at over 4 million acres… double that of the previous biggest year. I’ll have to make that graph literally twice as tall if I add in 2020. The August Complex fire by itself has hit over 1 million acres and is bigger than the entire burnt acreage for many individual years. California is burning more than it used to… a lot more.

California climate fire
Photo by John Newman, US Forest Service, Public Domain

Given that we’re still dumping carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere like it’s candy going out of style (I know, shut up), it’s pretty clear that it’s going to get a lot worse. Not everywhere will be on fire like in the American West, but the extent of the changes may be similar. Replace fires with hurricanes and you might get the idea for the East Coast of the US. Notice how we fucking ran out of names for storms this year? We had to start over with the Greek alphabet, like the worst fraternity in the world, and we’re currently on Hurricane Iota. When Florida hits 1.5 degrees C warming in a few years, they’re going to look back at this year’s storms and say, “We freaked out about hitting Iota? How precious.” They’re going to just be living with severe storms most of the year the same way the West is having to just live with constant smoke and fires.

Your stupid gender-based pyrotechnics aren’t helping any

So, look. Climate change models predict that California will experience increased temps and drier air. Higher temps and drier air makes wildfires more likely to happen and more severe when they do happen. California has experienced the predicted changes in climate. Fires have gotten worse. There’s not really any more of them, but they’re bigger, hotter, and last longer than they used to. It’s not too hard to connect the dots here. The August Complex fire, the orange skies in the night or even the day, the smoke blanketing huge areas of the country… that’s all because of climate change. No, I can’t tell you that any particular fire would or would not have happened anyway. I can’t tell you how much worse these fires are than they would be if we’d stopped carbon dioxide emissions 20 years ago. I can’t promise you anything if you want to nail me down on specifics. But that’s not because climate change isn’t real, or that it’s not making these fires worse. That’s because we are talking about probabilities and random events.

Daytime glow in San Fran from the 2020 climate fires
Daytime glow from fires, San Francisco / Photo copyright Christopher Michel under Creative Commons license

Even without climate change, if you pulled up that copy of Earth from 2005, changed nothing at all, and let it run normally, you very likely wouldn’t get the same set of fires as we’re having now. There would still be fires in California this year, but they’d be different sizes and in different areas. Maybe the total area burned would be the same, but maybe it’d be a little worse, or a little better. You can’t predict specific details like that. Climate is all about patterns and trends over time, statistics and likelihoods. Individual events and details will always have some random variation even though the overall pattern is predictable. And it’s not just the weather that we’re talking about. If a certain couple had taken a few more months to get pregnant, they would have had their stupid fucking gender reveal party in the winter during cooler weather and maybe there’d be one less fire this year. Or maybe they’d have gotten knocked up sooner and that fire would have had all fucking year to burn.

Maybe if they’d raked the forests more…

“But wait a minute,” you exclaim through your combination of smoke and covid masks, “these wildfires are all caused by humans, not climate change! The forests have been mismanaged! They didn’t hoover enough leaves off the ground!”

Yes, it’s true that certain politicians have been putting the blame for these fires on state officials for not managing their forests properly. There’s even some truth in that. However, remember that politicians say things for political reasons. In this case, they are trying to land a hit on the California governor because they don’t like him. Problem is… a lot of the land that is burning and that has burned is owned and managed by the federal government, not the state. The state of California has little to no say in how these lands are used or managed, and so you can’t put everything on the governor. As for management problems, yes, there’s some truth to that. A lot of forest and wild land has been mismanaged over the past century, especially with regard to fire, not just in California but across the country.

I blame you, Smokey
I blame you, Smokey!

Smokey the Bear popped up in the 1950’s, and brought with him a powerful anti-fire sentiment that is still common in the ranks of the US Forest Service and other agencies today. Stopping wildfires seems like a good idea at first glance. They’re dangerous, they destroy wildlife habitat and ruin potentially valuable timber. But there’s a flip side to that. Fires in many ecosystems are healthy. Small fires break up the landscape and create edge and clearing habitats, adding complexity to the ecosystems. Some species thrive in areas that regrow after fires, and a few even need fires for reproduction. Perhaps most importantly, small fires actually prevent big fires. When an area burns, the next fire that comes along will hit that area and find little or nothing to burn again.

Let the motherfucker burn

When we have lots of small fires all the time, they burn cooler, burn less area, and kill fewer trees. When we put out every fire that pops up, it stops that process. More fuel builds up and it’s more uniform across the landscape. When there inevitably is a fire that gets out of control, instead of being small, it can become enormous. They burn hotter, spread further, and kill more trees, perhaps all of them. The hottest fires even burn the soil, which can take decades to recover. Proper forest management often means not only letting the small fires burn (where they don’t risk human lives or unique ecosystems), but actually intentionally starting fires, otherwise known as prescribed burns.

However, remember what I said… this has been going on for a long time, not just the past 20 years. We’ve had many other years with bigger than normal fires. The thing is… the biggest fires are getting bigger, and bigger. Forest management undoubtedly is a factor in this, but it is not the only factor. If it were, this would have been happening since the 1950’s. If this were all due to fire suppression, we should actually be seeing less big fires than in the late 20th century, since the Forest Service and other agencies have become more aware of the benefits of small ground fires in the landscape over the past couple of decades. Even Smokey is on board with prescribed burns now. No, there’s more going on here. Add to that the fact that some of these fires are happening in desert or grassland landscapes that never had much management at all, and it’s pretty clear there’s more to it than just bad management. It’s the cumulative effect of mismanagement and a changing climate. Combined, the results have been nasty.

prescribed burn
National Parks Service fire crew conducting a prescribed burn

As for raking up the forest floor… what the fuck, man. Look… I don’t aim to get political in this space, but that shit is whack. Nobody has ever raked the forests. You do controlled burns, selective logging, even some clear cutting (which, done correctly, can simulate many aspects of wildfires), but… well, look. You go out some time with a rake and try to clear all the leaves and branches out of a forested area. Let me know how that works out. It’s true that on occasion, fire crews will clear some debris in a line to create fire breaks ahead of an existing fire, but that’s extremely labor intensive and something you do strategically, not just randomly or throughout the forest. Maybe by “raking” they meant clearing debris after a clear cut, which can be done, but that practice has its own issues. And yeah, most fires in California have been started by humans. This has always been the case, however, at least in modern times. The number of fires hasn’t really changed, nor has their causes. The size and severity has, though. Whether sparked by lightning or a tow chain dragged along the asphalt, wildfires are dramatically worse than they used to be, which corresponds directly with the warming climate.

Shit or get off the climate pot

Climatologists can’t make you any guarantees about specific events. But they can tell us what the overall trends will be. Wait long enough, and the blips in the pattern will even out and your trend will appear. Climate change is real, it’s here now, and it’s making these fires worse. I can’t tell you that any specific one is worse, but overall, over the course of a decade, they’re worse than they should be. What fucking difference does it make if the Glass fire is worse than it would have been, but the Creek fire was about the same? When fires are going from infrequent events that rarely cause much trouble, to common events that affect entire swaths of the country, who gives a shit if the increase in burned area can be 85% explained by climate change, or just 65%? We’re walking on eggshells with the public and the media, just because it’s hard to explain math. It’s bullshit, and we need to cut it out. People rely on scientists to tell them what’s going on, and sooner or later we have to put it in plain language for them. We have to make the case that it doesn’t matter if 2018 was the year fires became an undeniably bigger problem, or if 2022 will be the year. We’ve gotta take some responsibility. Quit being cautious, and quit worrying about what the climate deniers will do with your words. Climate change makes fires worse, the climate is changing, the fires are getting worse, so these fires are worse because of climate change. It ain’t rocket science.

I mean, it is a science, though. Just not that kind. It’s easy, is my point.

wildfire
Photo courtesy of Peter Buschmann, United States Forest Service, USDA. Some additional editing by W.carter. / Public domain

The governor of Washington state, Jay “Thirst Trap” Inslee, has called this year’s fires “climate fires” rather than wildfires. This was a term used last year by Australian authorities to describe their massive fires as well. And it’s about fucking time. These are climate fires. It doesn’t matter to what extent or which ones or any of that. We keep talking about climate change like it’s a potential risk in the far future. That was true in the 1970’s when we first started really getting worried about it. No longer. It’s here, it’s now, and if we don’t use language that reflects that urgency, we will keep procrastinating like a college sophomore with an essay about determinism versus free will due on Friday but they just got this cool new game for the Xbox plus Olivia asked them to hang out and have you SEEN her of course they’re not going to worry about that essay until 2 AM Friday morning. Dude’s gonna have to retake that class over the summer, which is fine for them, but we ain’t gonna get another shot at this. Stick the console in the closet, tell Olivia you don’t feel good, and get to fucking work.

MORE READING:
NASA Satellite Data Record Shows Climate Change’s Impact on Fires
NPR Climate Change’s Effect On The Wildfires In The West Coast
New York Times The ‘Straightforward’ Link Between Climate and California’s Fires
Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests

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