The weather in California has always been characterized by extreme, or even disastrous, conditions, including destructive mudslides in the winter, uncontrollable wildfires in the summer and earthquakes at any time. At the moment, the state is in the midst of a wildfire season of epic and historic proportions. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the National Interagency Fire Center so far in 2018 the state has seen over 7,500 wildfires, which have destroyed an area of nearly 1.7 MILLION acres. That’s right, folks – million. These fires have caused damage of nearly $3 billion.
Moreover, as we know, there is more destruction to come as fires are still burning. According to Wikipedia, one of them, the Camp Fire, has been responsible for 56 deaths and has consumed in excess of 10,000 structures so far, which makes it the deadliest and most destructive fire ever in CA. It is estimated to be as large as the state of Rhode Island. Even now, firefighters estimate that it is only about 50% contained.
In addition, many more people are missing and unaccounted for. Given the circumstances, the likelihood is that many, if not most, of them are dead as well. Many bodies have been burned so badly that they can only be identified by DNA analysis.
The worst of the damage is in northern California, even spilling into southern Oregon. Those of you who watched the Giants-49ers football game last Monday night from San Francisco witnessed the eerie site of smoke in the air from a nearby fire. Also, many of the players, affected by the unhealthy air quality, could be seen sucking oxygen on the sidelines. Periodically, the tv commentaters denoted that the air quality index was approaching the “unhealthy” level of 200.
Why has this season been so destructive? Several reasons have been suggested:
1. An increase in the number of dead trees. Obviously, trees die all the time, but at this time there is, according to Wikipedia, a record 129 million dead trees in the state. Dead trees equal fuel for fires.
2. The state is in the midst of a severe drought. The climate change advocates have cited increasing temperatures as the cause. Temperatures have been higher, but it could be an annual effect rather than a climactic trend. I don’t think there is proof one way or the other.
3. Exurban expansion. Homes have been and are continuing to be built in canyons and forests that are susceptible to wildfires. According to Wikipedia in the last 20 years over 40% of new homes have been built in such areas. Most of these homes were wiped out. The entire town of Paradise, was obliterated. The “NY Times” cited one homeowner who, perhaps, ill-advisedly, stayed and managed to prevent the fire from destroying his mobile home. He fought the fire with “a garden hose and five-gallon buckets.” He said the fire was so intense it “roared like an aircraft engine.” He described embers “larger than basketballs” and recounted that when the fire hit a nearby shed in which firearms were stored it “set off hundred of rounds, sending bullets flying.”
4. Forest Management. The state and federal governments have not kept up with clearing dead trees. President Trump, in what I consider to have been an ill-advised and inappropriate tweet, cited this as the primary reason for the high number of fires. He tweeted, in part, “there is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in CA except that forest management is poor.” He was referring to mismanagement by the state of California’s forestry personnel, probably not realizing that some 60% of the forestry in CA is owned by and is the responsibility of the federal government. As reported in the “NY Times,” once he toured the area with Governor Jerry Brown he modulated his tone. He ascribed the fires to “a lot of factors,” declared the area a “disaster area,” pledged federal aid, and praised the firefighters and emergency workers for their “incredible courage,” adding “we’ll all pull through it together.”
As I said in the opening paragraph California has always been plagued by extreme weather. Heavy rains in the winter, and dry, hot, windy conditions in the summer, not to mention the constant threat of the next earthquake. There’s nothing we can do about that.
I think we can all agree that these fires are tragic. I can’t imagine what it is like to see your home, with all your possessions, destroyed in minutes and nothing you can do to prevent it. My heart goes out to those people.
That said, I predict that Americans will pull together to help those affected get through this latest tragedy. It’s what we do. We squabble among ourselves from day to day, but when disaster strikes we close ranks and support each other.