California’s wildfires aren’t “natural” — humans made them worse at every step

By Umair Irfan

We fuel them, we build houses by them, we ignite them.

Raging infernos in California are burning through shrub land and neighborhoods this week while inching perilously closer to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

This year is shaping up to be one of the state’s worst fire seasons ever, as windswept flames have scorched more than 190,000 acres, caused at least 29 deaths, and shrouded communities with the worst air pollution they’ve ever measured.

Though seasonal wildfires are a natural occurrence in the Golden State, humans are making them worse and increasing the harm from them every step of the way.

Firefighters are now working to contain 21 large fires across the state that have already destroyed at least 3,500 homes and businesses. The Tubbs fire in Napa and Sonoma counties alone killed 11 people, making it the sixth-deadliest wildfire in California history.

You can view a map of current wildfires in California below:

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says the deadly blazes are barely contained, and firefighters are now bracing for shifting winds that could drive the flames in new directions, putting more Californians at risk.

“Personally, I think it will be one of the worst disasters in California history,” Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano told a town hall in Santa Rosa.

For California, this may be just the beginning of a mounting disaster as stiff, dry air currents pick up throughout the state and many more combustible acres lie in the fires’ path.

It’s also just the latest unfolding tragedy in what has already been an epic fire season across the United States, burning through more than 8.5 million of acres of land and sending choking smoke throughout much of the West.

Fires are more damaging because we keep building in harm’s way

The California fires stretch the definition of “natural disaster” since human activities have exacerbated their likelihood, their extent, and their damage. Deliberate decisions and unintended consequences of urban development over decades have turned many parts of the state into a tinderbox.

This year’s blazes particularly stand out because of how close they are to suburbs and major cities.

“When we get wildfires close to residential areas, that’s what makes them extraordinary events,” said Heath Hockenberry, fire weather program manager at the National Weather Service. It’s also getting increasingly hard to keep people at a safe distance from the embers.

Harrowing scenes of flames and smoke have emerged, like this video from Santa Rosa, 55 miles north of San Francisco:

Much of California is naturally hot, dry, and prone to fires for parts of the year. But the state’s population is growing, leading to a significant overlap between the areas of high fire risk and areas with a growing population density, as you can see in these maps from a 2014 study of population trends in in California out to 2050.

 Mann et al. | Land Use Policy
A map showing population density growth projections (left) and a map showing fire hazards

“We are definitely seeing [construction in fire-prone regions] happen more and more: 95 percent of the population of the state lives on 6 percent of the land,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Californians are drawn to views of mountains, forests, and grasslands and are building ever closer to these features that often have a propensity to burn. And places like Napa and Sonoma counties, picturesque regions that are now charred, have some of the fastest-growing property values and highest-priced homes in the United States.

This proximity is part of what’s driving the death toll. Tolmachoff noted that the ongoing fires galloped through neighborhoods in the middle of the night, riding gusts up to 70 mph.

And the embers haven’t discriminated between wealthy and poor residents. “Where these fires occurred, I think the risk is generalized all around,” Tolmachoff said. “They went from the rural areas to very urban areas. … It affected everyone pretty much evenly.”

Residents reported waking up to the smell of smoke and were forced to race away from the flames lighting the road ahead.

This pattern of building in or near fire-prone regions has also led to land management practices to prevent fire that paradoxically increase fire risk. For instance, policies for preventing wildfires have in some areas led to an accumulation of the dry vegetation that would ordinarily burn away in smaller natural blazes.

“The thing that gets missed in all of this is that fires are a natural part of many of these systems,” said Matthew Hurteau, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico studying climate impacts on forests. “We have suppressed fires for decades actively. That’s caused larger fires.”

We keep starting these fires

A study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, or PNAS, found that 84 percent of wildfires are ignited by humans, whether through downed power lines, careless campfires, or arson.

“Human-started wildfires accounted for 84% of all wildfires, tripled the length of the fire season, dominated an area seven times greater than that affected by lightning fires, and were responsible for nearly half of all area burned,” the paper reported.

Transmission lines appear to be the culprit behind the wine country fires, but officials are still investigating other causes.

Video shows heavy flames, smoke next to California power lines https://t.co/0Lw5ilJog3 pic.twitter.com/4vbE9Pa98i

— kcranews (@kcranews) October 10, 2017

The utility serving the region, Pacific Gas and Electric, has previously been billed for firefighting costs for fires stemming from its transmission lines.

“PG&E meteorologists reported overnight gusts between 50 and 75 mph, which aided the fires in the Northern parts of the energy company’s service area, especially Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties,” the company wrote in a press release about the current fires. “Those winds damaged PG&E’s electrical system in some locations.”

John Abatzoglou, a climatologist at the University of Idaho who …read more

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