California Wildfires: Global Warming Early Warning

Only a couple of months ago, I was awestruck at how thoroughly carbonized some once-thriving Jeffrey pines had become, transformed into charcoal by one of the increasingly frequent California wildfires. The trees’ remains lie the Los Padres National Forest, but a minuscule fraction of the countless thousands the massive Thomas fire is currently turning to ash.

The Thomas Fire is now the most destructive in California history, having destroyed over a thousand structures and counting. Two people have died so far, including a firefighter.

Thousands won't have a home for the holidays due to the California wildfires...and Global Warming. This is one war on Christmas Trump refuses to fight.
Firefighters battling the Northern California wildfires. Via Andrea Booher, FEMA Photo Library. Public domain.

Though I mourn every unimaginable, heartbreaking fire loss, I feel grateful that the blaze isn’t torching our beloved section of the enormous Los Padres National Forest, the area around Mt. Pinos.

One guess as to the translation of pinos.

Via Keith Onstad.
A majestic pine felled by a wildfire. Via Keith Onstad.

The charcoaled pines in the concluding photo were hardly the most magnificent of the scorched trees that was saw last October. But I was stunned at intensity of the inferno that had transmuted them.

Yet, the remnants of past wildfires we encounter in Mt. Pinos are far from unusual. Indeed, it’s almost a grim game when we hike in a new location: I spy with my little eye a blackened tree.

Wildfire damaged King Gillette Ranch tree
A living, fire-scarred tree at King Gillette Ranch. Via Keith Onstad.

A few weeks ago, as we neared the peak of a steep hill in King Gillette Ranch (yes, it once belonged to the Gillette of razor scam fame), I noted with surprise that we hadn’t seen any fire damage yet.

Within a few minutes we came upon numerous scorched trunks. Many, like the tree to the right, still bore their wounds from their brush with brushfire.

Our state’s flora and fauna — especially in its southern section — are adapted to California wildfires, which has shaped their environment for thousands of thousands of years. That’s why we see so may Jeffrey pines still thriving despite their blackened trunks.Wildfire damaged trees 1

The California wildfires have been so widespread that the Los Padres National Forest wasn’t the first of our favorite places under threat by the unrelenting conflagrations. My heart leaped into my throat when I first learned that the Skirball Fire was burning near the Getty Center (where I broke my shoulder).

Fortunately, the IMG_5486Getty and it’s gorgeous grounds were designed precisely with wildfires in mind. They weren’t about to let fire consume Van Gogh’s Irises. Indeed, the museum’s ubiquitous travertine wasn’t selected for the embedded fossils we adore, but for the stone’s fire resistance.

The deer we watched in 2010 foraging on a recently burned hillside below the Getty demonstrated the effectiveness of the museum’s protective strategies, not to mention the opportunism of local wildlife after a fire.

Click on the photo if you can’t see the deer (there are three visible). This is a distant, extremely cropped cellphone photo. Via Keith Onstad.

What’s to worry about, when we even have plants that depend on fire to germinate? Especially when there are architectural and landscape-management techniques that can minimize the risk of fire damage?

First, it should be obvious by now that facilities like the Getty Center are far from the norm. California was still reeling from the horrific and deadly Wine Country fires in Northern California. The Tubbs fire was the most destructive in California history. Together, the Northern California wildfires killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 structures.

Napa Valley was considered relatively safe, with brush-free, picturesque vineyards and artificially quaint tourist traps. And it still burned.

On a recent hike, standing in what would’ve been a short waterfall a few months ago. Via Keith Onstad.

As I’ve written about, after five years of record drought, California finally experienced a very wet rainy season last winter and into the spring. Keith and I reveled in the lush greenness and plentiful wildflowers on our rehab hikes, with a special emphasis on waterfall hikes within my capabilities.

Yet, the spigot has been turned off in our currently rainless rainy season. The vegetation is literally tinder dry.

In recent years, our winters have been increasingly feeling like summer. It’s no coincidence that our last hike through the forest Mt. Pinos was on the 15th, soon after the Northern California wildfires.

The series of heatwaves that drove the Wine Country fires also sent us driving up to Mt. Pinos. Though we love the Los Padres National Forest, it’s more than an hour away. We hike there when it’s too hot to hike closer to home.

Even at 8,000 feet above sea level it was a lot warmer than it normally would be in mid-October. (And, yes, I do run out of breath easily up there).

In the last century, Global Warming has raised California’s temperature by 1.5 degree.

Only You Can Prevent Increasing California Wildfires

Okay, I can hear the Climate Change doubters say, so them’s the breaks. That doesn’t mean humans had anything to do with it.

[Actually, I prefer the term Global Warming. Though it’s been embraced by environmental activists, Climate Change is a PR term dreamed up by GOP pollster and strategist Frank Luntz. It’s meant to sound less urgent, as if the warming of the planet could be a natural alteration in its climate, beyond the control of humans. (Sadly, it works.)]

A recent edition of the PBS Newshour succinctly laid out the role of Global Warming in creating the conditions for our devastating California wildfires.

Park Williams, a Columbia University bio-climatologist, told the Newshour’s Miles O’Brien (as opposed to the Star Trek’s):

Since 1984, the area that burns in any given year is up over four hundred percent. If we look at forests in particular the amount that burns in any given year is up by over a thousand percent.

And as Williams tells the former CNN science correspondent:

Drought years, you have a higher probability of fire. And temperature promotes drought. And so, as temperatures have been rising, we have seen drought intensifying. And, as a result, we have seen increased fire.

Keith and I have been living those rising temperatures. Increasingly, instead of bundling up in the fall and winter for our rehab hikes, I slip on light summer dresses…even at Mt. Pinos.

IMG_3708
Hiking in a (so far) unburned section of the Los Padres National Forest in a light summer dress. Via Keith Onstad.

In the segment, the bio-climatologist explains:

What we have seen, especially in forested areas, is that, as we turn up the temperature, even by one or two degrees, then fire responds in a large and measurable way, because the vegetation dries out.

And with the rising temperatures, the chance of precipitation falls. It’s a vicious cycle, which the Special Correspondent’s excellent report clearly and concisely lays out.

Yet, the EPA is headed by an avowed Global Warming denier. President Trump, who has labeled Climate Change a Chinese hoax, pulled out of the Paris Agreement.

The Trump Administration is fiddling as California burns.

In a recent news conference, Gov. Brown warned that California’s ever-expanding fire season is the new normal, adding:

We’re about to have a firefighting Christmas.

Meanwhile, hundreds of families won’t be having a merry Christmas, nor will this be a happy holiday. Global Warming is the ultimate Grinch that Stole Christmas.

Yet this is one war on Christmas Donald Trump refuses to fight.


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