The wildfires north of San Francisco, in California’s wine country, exploded on the night of October 8-9, whipped by high, dry and hot winds. They have wreaked unprecedented damage.
As I wrote, a week-and-a-half later, these fires still burn. By October 18, at least 41 people had been killed — a number that will surely rise as burnt-out neighborhoods are searched.
The fires started in hilly wooded areas, but moved into towns and cities, laying waste to more than 5700 homes and other structures and burned through 213,000 acres, making these the most damaging (by many times over) fire storms in California since records were first kept.
More than 100,000 people were evacuated, many still displaced. Expect higher prices for California wines in the next few years, as many vineyards were destroyed.
Firestorms happen when smaller fires merge into a larger fire, which draws winds into it. At times, the fires spread so quickly that firefighters had to flee, running away as fast as they could. Many of the deaths happened when people were unable to evacuate in time.
Depending on wind direction, thick, toxic smoke extended for a hundred miles south to San Francisco and beyond for many days. Where I live, south and east of SF, the smell was so strong one day that upon waking, I first thought my house was burning, until I went outside and saw the smoke was everywhere.
All the household chemicals and other materials produced highly toxic ashes when burned. People returning to search through the debris to see if anything could be salvaged are in danger of being poisoned.
Dr Karen Relucio, chief medical officer in Napa County, one of the hardest-hit places, said in an October 16 interview with the New York Times: “Just think of all the hazardous materials in your house, the chemicals, pesticides, propane, gasoline, plastic and paint. It concentrates in the ash, and it’s toxic.”
She warned people away from the ashes and declared a public emergency in the county, as have other burned-out areas.
Long after the fires are extinguished, there will have to be a major effort to clean up all the dangerous toxic ash.
There is a direct link between these fires and global warming. The five preceding years featured a once-in-500-year drought in California, which scientist linked to rising temperatures. During the drought, more than 100 million trees died, providing a huge reservoir of fuel for this year’s fires.
California has a Mediterranean climate, with usually wet winters and dry spring through fall months. During the five-year drought, the wet seasons were unusually short with little precipitation, while the dry seasons were unusually long and hot.
During our last winter, there were greater than normal rains and snows, seeming to break the drought. It remains to be seen whether this year’s upcoming wet season repeats last year’s.
In any case, once the rains stopped, California was in the grip of a record-breaking season of high temperatures that dried everything out. An example was during summer, a day that reached 41 degrees Celsius broke a record for the city going back to when records were first kept. San Francisco’s summers are usually cool and foggy. (Mark Twain once quipped that the coldest winter he ever experienced was summer in San Francisco.)
California fire chief Ken Pimlott said: “We are still impacted by five years of drought. With the significant rain that we had last winter, those effects are gone of that moisture, and we are literally looking at explosive vegetation.
“These fires are burning actively during the day and night, when one would expect a fire to subside. And make no mistake: this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”
A Los Angeles Times editorial, headlined “The climate-change fire alarm from Northern California”, said: “We don’t yet know what started the fires … but we have a good idea of what made them so destructive.
“This is not just bad luck. Coming on the heels of other large-scale natural disasters — Houston inundated by a slow-moving tropical storm, swaths of Florida and the Caribbean ripped to shreds by a monster hurricane, much of Puerto Rico leveled by an equally powerful hurricane, a handful of Western states swept by massive fires that burned up millions of acres — one can’t help but see a disturbing pattern emerge.
“Those super-storms that scientists warned would result from climate change? They are here. The day of reckoning isn’t in the future. It is now.”
The words “record breaking” have become commonplace: There have been 18 tropical storms this year in the Atlantic so far originating off the coast of Africa — a record. And 10 of these have become hurricanes — another record, many the strongest ever seen, as the LA Times noted.
One has even swerved north to hit Ireland. The NYT reported on October 16 that it led to Ireland’s national weather service issuing its first-ever red alert for severe weather in its history.
Daniel Swain, climate scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles, said: “The changes in climate that we’re experiencing are largely due to the human emission of greenhouse gasses. And we expect warming to continue for as long as we continue to emit those greenhouse gases …
“If we chose to reduce and eventually eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions, we will avert much of the warming, much of the increased risk of extreme events like wildfires.”
However, we are moving in the opposite direction, with the burning of fossil fuels rising worldwide. To top it off, the administration in Washington, from President Donald Trump down, is populated by climate change deniers, bent on burning more and more coal, oil and natural gas (methane, a powerful greenhouse gas).
Meteorologists, under pressure from media executives, almost never use the words “global warming” and “climate change” when reporting on these extreme weather events.