Fire and change
Scientists typically hesitate to say any specific event happened because of climate change, Westerling said. Yet, he said, “we know that these events are affected by the weather and the climate and how dry it is. The climate system has been altered by people ... all the weather we're experiencing and what's driving these wildfire events is climate change.”
While this fire devastated part of the San Francisco Bay Area, wildfire is creating growing problems across the West, Westerling said.
“Everywhere, including California, the number of large fires has been increasing, and the area burned in them has been increasing, as well,” he said. Climate models indicate California in years ahead could experience cycles of droughts followed by heavy rains. That could mean more destructive fires, the experts said.
“Even in a really wet year, if you get a hot summer, your vegetation is just a tinderbox,” Swain said.
· Californians also have been building homes in areas that not long ago were wildlands, pointed out Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. That needs to change if the state wants to adapt to climate change, he said. -- By Debra Kahn, Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News, October 12, 2017
“Risk perception kicks in differently for different kinds of disasters,” said Laurie Johnson, a disaster-recovery consultant who has helped cities, including New Orleans and Kobe, Japan, after fires, floods, earthquakes and other catastrophes. “With wildfires, it’s really difficult to know. We are facing new intensities with these storms. We can’t look to the past and say it is a good prediction of the future anymore, and that’s very difficult for people to wrap their heads around.” -- Johnson, SF Chronicle, Aug. 25, 2018
“Climate change is not a problem we have to make go away, in a sense that you don’t make adolescence go away,” Frank said. “It is a dangerous transition that you have to navigate. … The question is are we smart enough to deal with the effects of our own power? Climate change is not a pollution problem. It’s not like any environmental problem we’ve faced before. In some sense, it’s not an environmental problem but a planetary transition. We’ve already pushed the earth into it. We’re going to have to evolve a new way of being a civilization, fundamentally.” -- Hedges, Truthdig.com, Aug. 19, 2018
San Francisco Chronicle
After deadly Carr Fire, a question of how — and whether — to rebuild 1,000 homes
REDDING — Big blazes had licked the rugged outskirts of this city before, blackening nearby forests. But a wildfire had never surged across city limits — not until the Carr Fire changed everything.
It blew into the city of 91,000 people from the west late last month, leveling 1,079 homes. Four residents died. So did two firefighters. And the fire burned so hot that it created its own weather, generating a lethal tornado that spun up to 143 mph.
The next steps after a major California inferno are to recover and rebuild, to seek a great renewal from the ashes. But in this devastating season there’s a sense that the usual calculus could change — that places like Redding must not only decide how to rebuild, but whether to do so at all.
“The people who live in burnable landscapes have to understand that California can’t protect them,” said Tom Scott, a natural resources wildlife specialist with the UC Cooperative Extension in Riverside. “We do have a fire service, and they’ll do all they can and work really hard. But there’s going to come a day when a fire can’t be fought, and they’ll lose their home.
“We’re in that transition right now,” Scott said. “We need to start making better decisions about where we build.”
The Carr Fire, which as of Friday had scorched 230,000 acres and was 93 percent contained, had barely blitzed into Redding when supportive calls began coming in from Ventura and Santa Rosa. Officials in these cities experienced disastrous blazes last year and knew the difficult path ahead.
They knew Redding had joined the ranks of a rare but fast-growing club: cities that couldn’t have fathomed losing whole urban or suburban neighborhoods.
“It’s the new fire we are seeing across California,” said Redding City Manager Barry Tippin. “When you see a wildfire that does not exhibit any traditional characteristics, it’s not only a total surprise, but it also causes great strife and stress within a community. We, as a state, need to step back and realize that something is different here.”
October’s Tubbs Fire, which swept west from Calistoga into Santa Rosa, destroyed more than 5,600 homes. The Thomas Fire took 1,000 homes in December in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Overall, more than 10,000 buildings and more than 1 million acres burned last year, according to Cal Fire data.
In the aftermath, local officials expedited building permits and allowed housing to be rebuilt in the same footprint — albeit with some new fire-safety standards.
But as global warming fuels extreme fire behavior, some urban planners and disaster-recovery experts are questioning whether rebuilding in the same fire-prone areas is safe. Maybe all of those developments shouldn’t return, they say. Perhaps the conversation needs entirely new parameters.
“Risk perception kicks in differently for different kinds of disasters,” said Laurie Johnson, a disaster-recovery consultant who has helped cities, including New Orleans and Kobe, Japan, after fires, floods, earthquakes and other catastrophes. “With wildfires, it’s really difficult to know. We are facing new intensities with these storms. We can’t look to the past and say it is a good prediction of the future anymore, and that’s very difficult for people to wrap their heads around.”
Once the flames have been vanquished and the fire trucks have rolled out, local governments must balance two critical interests, Johnson said. The first is relieving the suffering of victims who want to rebuild. The second is creating new policy around how those homes should be constructed.
But finding a balance is not easy. Especially when wildfire behavior no longer follows a known formula.
“Should some places not be allowed to rebuild at all?” she asked. “Is there now a new category with a higher fire risk than we thought possible? It’s hard to predict if and when a place might burn again. Those are the challenges of a thoughtful formula.”
Moreover, making good policy becomes harder in the emotionally charged weeks following a disaster. And there is little precedent for governments preventing residents from rebuilding on their own still-valuable land.
More than 25 years after the Oakland hills firestorm, the 3,000 ruined homes have been rebuilt. In Santa Rosa and just east of the city, the Mark West Springs and Fountaingrove communities are following a similar trajectory nearly a year after the Tubbs Fire.
Those areas are still at high risk for fire, some experts say, pointing to them as examples of poor urban planning.
“It’s really hard, in the heat of a catastrophe, to think about doing things differently,” said Sarah Karlinsky, a senior policy adviser at SPUR, a public policy think tank focused on urban planning in the Bay Area. “It’s really important that cities and urbanized places do their planning work up front. It’s hard to take a step back right after a disaster happens, and the window for making changes can close quickly.”
The state’s guidelines for the so-called wildland-urban interface — which dictate how homes can be built on a city’s more flammable outskirts — can help increase fire resiliency on a local level. For example, since 2011, the state has required that all newly built single-family homes have sprinkler systems. But such additions can quickly become costly, especially if a city marks its burned areas as extreme fire-hazard zones.
In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties — hit by December’s Thomas Fire and, later, a massive and deadly mudslide — as well as in Sonoma County, expedited permit centers were created in the months after the disasters. Officials slashed fees to help the process become more affordable.
But zoning rules were not updated, and building codes largely remained the same. One of the few additions stipulated that new homes needed to be constructed to current code. Critics say the same decisions that led to homes being destroyed by the hundreds or thousands are being made again.
Complicating matters is the difficulty of calculating risks across the state, while factoring in things like weather, vegetation and the strength of nearby firefighting and forest management. Even with the best planning, wildfires can do immense damage under the right conditions in unexpected places — like neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and Redding.
“If you’re a homeowner and it’s your property, you have a legal right to rebuild there, and that’s what happens,” said Charlie Eadie, a consultant who helped rebuild downtown Santa Cruz after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. “If the areas are hazardous, then the question is: Are they so hazardous that you can’t rebuild? Or can they be rebuilt with some hazard mitigation built in? This is the part of disaster that creates opportunity in the sense that you can build safer structures.”
Matthew Schjoth, 41, hasn’t thought much about what comes next. He knows he wants to rebuild his Redding home, but the details will have to come later. It was only last month that the Carr Fire leveled his neighborhood of Lake Redding Estates, a few days after being ignited by a blown trailer tire on July 23.
Schjoth and his wife, their four kids and two grandchildren moved in with his in-laws in Cottonwood (Shasta County), just south of Redding along Interstate 5. Sometimes they reminisce about what they lost, and it still doesn’t feel real. The family had lived in the home for 12 years.
Neighbors knew it as the “Christmas house.” Every December, Schjoth’s father-in-law would dress up as Santa and they would convert the garage into a toy workshop. Schjoth would hand out hot cocoa and candy canes. Their memories are wrapped up in the property on Harlan Drive, and so that’s where his family wants to return.
“This is definitely not something that was ever expected to happen,” he said. “It probably won’t ever happen again in my lifetime.”
But wildfires do tend to return to the same places, experts say. They point to the Hanley Fire of 1964 in Sonoma County, which scorched nearly the same area as the Tubbs Fire. Back then, walnut orchards stood where neighborhoods later developed, and fewer than 100 homes burned.
Because predicting when the next blaze might happen is difficult, it’s important to thoughtfully rebuild, if a resident rebuilds at all, said Michele Steinberg, manager of the Wildland Division at the National Fire Protection Agency.
“Wildfires will continue to burn because it’s part of the phenomenon of the ecosystem and the landscape,” she said. “Where you’ve had fire before, you’ll have fire again. The thing is, nobody stops building, whether it’s a good idea or not. Community officials need to think ahead and realize there is risk, accept it and figure out the best ways to rebuild.”
In Redding, where the Carr Fire torched homes across the socioeconomic gamut, from sprawling homes in the hillside to low-income tracts of mobile homes, officials are already pondering how to do that. Fire fuels management — cutting “defensible space” around homes — only recently became a requirement, said officials who are considering beefing up the building code further.
“The city has always been interested in developing fire resistance, to do anything they could to prevent a big incident,” said Tippin, the city manager. “Going forward, we will put more thought into that and more things we can do.”
Saying Goodbye to Planet Earth
The spectacular rise of human civilization—its agrarian societies, cities, states, empires and industrial and technological advances ranging from irrigation and the use of metals to nuclear fusion—took place during the last 10,000 years, after the last ice age. Much of North America was buried, before the ice retreated, under sheets eight times the height of the Empire State Building. This tiny span of time on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old is known as the Holocene Age. It now appears to be coming to an end with the refusal of our species to significantly curb the carbon emissions and pollutants that might cause human extinction. The human-induced change to the ecosystem, at least for many thousands of years, will probably make the biosphere inhospitable to most forms of life.
The planet is transitioning under our onslaught to a new era called the Anthropocene. This era is the product of violent conquest, warfare, slavery, genocide and the Industrial Revolution, which began about 200 years ago, and saw humans start to burn a hundred million years of sunlight stored in the form of coal and petroleum. The numbers of humans climbed to over 7 billion. Air, water, ice and rock, which are interdependent, changed. Temperatures climbed. The Anthropocene, for humans and most other species, will most likely conclude with extinction or a massive die-off, as well as climate conditions that will preclude most known life forms. We engineered our march toward collective suicide although global warming was
first identified in 1896 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius.
The failure to act to ameliorate global warming exposes the myth of human progress and the illusion that we are rational creatures. We ignore the wisdom of the past and the stark scientific facts before us. We are entranced by electronic hallucinations and burlesque acts, including those emanating from the centers of power, and this ensures our doom. Speak this unpleasant truth and you are condemned by much of society. The mania for hope and magical thinking is as seductive in the Industrial Age as it was in pre-modern societies.
Ate and Nemesis were minor deities who were evoked in ancient Greek drama. Those infected with hubris, the Greeks warned, lost touch with the sacred, believed they could defy fate, or fortuna, and abandoned humility and virtue. They thought of themselves as gods. Their hubris blinded them to human limits and led them to carry out acts of suicidal folly, embodied in the god Ate. This provoked the wrath of the gods. Divine retribution, in the form of Nemesis, led to tragedy and death and then restored balance and order, once those poisoned with hubris were eradicated. “Too late, too late you see the path of wisdom,” the Chorus in the play “Antigone” tells Creon, ruler of Thebes, whose family has died because of his hubris.
“We’re probably not the first time there’s been a civilization in the universe,” Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and the author of “Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth,” told me when we met in New York.
“The idea that we’re destroying the planet gives us way too much credit,” he went on. “Certainly, we’re pushing the earth into a new era. If we look at the history of the biosphere, the history of life on earth, in the long run, the earth is just going to pick that up and do what is interesting for it. It will run new evolutionary experiments. We, on the other hand, may not be a part of that experiment.”
Civilizations probably have risen elsewhere in the universe, developed complex societies and then died because of their own technological advances. Every star in the night sky is believed to be circled by planets, some 10 billion trillion of which astronomers such as Frank Drake estimate are hospitable to life.
“If you develop an industrial civilization like ours, the route is going to be the same,” Adam Frank said. “You’re going to have a hard time not triggering climate change.”
Astronomers call the inevitable death of advanced civilizations across the universe “the great filter.” Robin Hanson in the essay, “The Great Filter—Are We Almost Past It?” argues that advanced civilizations hit a wall or a barrier that makes continued existence impossible. The more that human societies evolve, according to Hanson, the more they become “energy intensive” and ensure their own obliteration. This is why, many astronomers theorize, we have not encountered other advanced civilizations in the universe. They destroyed themselves.
“For a civilization to destroy itself through nuclear war, it has to have certain emotional characteristics,” Frank said. “You can imagine certain civilizations saying, ‘I’m not building those [nuclear weapons]. Those are crazy.’ But climate change, you can’t get away from. If you build a civilization, you’re using huge amounts of energy. The energy feeds back on the planet, and you’re going to push yourself into a kind of Anthropocene. It’s probably universal.”
Frank said that our inability to project ourselves into a future beyond our own life spans makes it hard for us to grasp the reality and consequences of severe climate change. Scenarios for dramatic climate change often center around the year 2100, when most adults living now will be dead. Although this projection may turn out to be overly optimistic given the accelerating rate of climate change, it allows societies to ignore—because it is outside the life span of most living adults—the slow-motion tsunami that is occurring.
“We think we’re not a part of the biosphere—that we’re above it—that we’re special,” Frank said. “We’re not special.”
“We’re the experiment that the biosphere is running now,” he said. “A hundred million years ago, it was grassland. Grasslands were a new evolutionary innovation. They changed the planet, changed how the planet worked. Then the planet went on and did things with it. Industrial civilization is the latest experiment. We will keep being a part of that experiment or, with the way that we’re pushing the biosphere, it will just move on without us.”
“We have been sending probes to every other planet in the solar system for the last 60 years,” he said. “We have rovers running around on Mars. We’ve learned generically how planets work. From Venus, we’ve learned about the runaway greenhouse effect. On Venus the temperature is 800 degrees. You can melt lead [there]. Mars is a totally dry, barren world now. But it used to have an ocean. It used to be a blue world. We have models that can predict the climate. I can predict the weather on Mars tomorrow via these climate models. People who think the only way we can understand climate is by studying the earth now, that’s completely untrue. These other worlds—Mars, Venus, Titan. Titan is a moon of Saturn that has an amazingly rich atmosphere. They all teach us how to think like a planet. They have taught us generically how planets behave.”
Frank points out that much of the configurations of the ecosystem on which we depend have not always been part of the planet’s biosphere. This includes the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water and warm air up from Florida to Boston and out across the Atlantic.
“Hundreds of millions of people in some of Earth’s most technologically advanced cities rely on the mild climate delivered by the Gulf Stream,” Frank writes in “Light of the Stars.” “But the Gulf Stream is nothing more than a particular circulation pattern formed during a particular climate state the Earth settled into after the last ice age ended. It is not a permanent fixture of the planet.”
“Everything we think about the earth just happens to be this one moment we found it in,” he told me. “We’re pushing it [the planet] and we’re pushing it hard. We don’t have much time to make these transitions. What people have to understand is that climate change is our cosmic adolescence. We should have expected this. The question is not ‘did we change the climate?’ It’s ‘of course we changed the climate. What else did you expect to have happened?’ We’re like a teenager who has been given this power over ourselves. Just like how you give a teenager the keys to the car, there’s this moment where you’re like, ‘Oh my God I hope you make it.’ And that’s what we are.”
“Climate change is not a problem we have to make go away, in a sense that you don’t make adolescence go away,” Frank said. “It is a dangerous transition that you have to navigate. … The question is are we smart enough to deal with the effects of our own power? Climate change is not a pollution problem. It’s not like any environmental problem we’ve faced before. In some sense, it’s not an environmental problem but a planetary transition. We’ve already pushed the earth into it. We’re going to have to evolve a new way of being a civilization, fundamentally.”
“We will either evolve those group behaviors quickly or the earth will take what we’ve given it, in terms of new climate states, and move on and create new species,” he said.
Frank said the mathematical models for the future of the planet have three trajectories. One is a massive die-off of perhaps 70 percent of the human population and then an uneasy stabilization. The second is complete collapse and extinction. The third is a dramatic reconfiguration of human society to protect the biosphere and make it more diverse and productive not for human beings but for the health of the planet. This would include halting our consumption of fossil fuels, converting to a plant-based diet and dismantling the animal agriculture industry as well as greening deserts and restoring rainforests.
There is, Frank warned, a tipping point when the biosphere becomes so degraded no human activity will halt runaway climate change. He cites Venus again.
“The water on Venus got lost slowly,” he said. “The CO2 built up. There was no way to take it out of the atmosphere. It gets hotter. The fact that it gets hotter makes it even hotter. Which makes it even hotter. That’s what would happen in the collapse model. Planets have minds of their own. They are super-complex systems. Once you get the ball rolling down the hill. … This is the greatest fear. This is why we don’t want to go past 2 degrees [Celsius] of climate change. We’re scared that once you get past 2 degrees, the planet’s own internal mechanisms kick in. The population comes down like a stone. A complete collapse. You lose the civilization entirely.”