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‘It’s getting worse:’ Climate change stokes fiery future for California

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Striding through the brown, sun-dried grass on a slope at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Caitlin Cornwall stopped to touch a slender stalk of blue wild rye, crowned by a tasseled seed pod.

The 3,900-acre park in the Mayacamas Mountains near Kenwood was largely overrun by the Nuns fire in October, and the signs of recovery are abundant. Most of the live oak, bay and madrone trees survived; smaller Douglas firs perished and are being dismantled by beetles and woodpeckers.

The grasslands are generally healthier than they were before last fall’s blaze and could readily burn again, said Cornwall, a biologist with Sonoma Ecology Center, which has managed the park since 2012.

“This is all a fire-created natural community,” she said. The park burned in 1964, also by a fire named Nuns.

Indeed, fire shaped the drought-prone landscape for thousands of years, as Native Americans used it to maintain meadows and forests that provided deer, elk and acorns for food as well as grasses for basketry.

But now, climate change has thrown the symbiosis of humans, fire and the landscape into catastrophic disarray. Much of California is a yearround tinderbox, with fast-moving wildfires erupting so quickly this year that firefighters have rushed from one to the next, with the usual peak of the fire season still to come.

“It just takes one spark,” said Scott McLean, a deputy chief with Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting and forestry agency.

As heat-trapping gases continue to pour into the atmosphere and temperatures inch upward, drawing moisture from the soil and vegetation, the state’s vast landscape is growing increasingly volatile, costing lives and billions of dollars in fire damages.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8737270-181/its-getting-worse-climate-change

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California Climate change report adds to evidence as state pushes back on Trump

Phil McKenna, INSIDE CLIMATE NEWS

The assessment warns of increasing wildfires, worsening droughts and more severe coastal flooding. State lawmakers are looking for solutions in renewable energy.

California published a comprehensive assessment Monday of the risks global warming is creating for the state, providing a thick tome of evidence advocates can now use to push climate legislation, pursue litigation, and attempt to sway public opinion as they take on industry and try to counter the Trump administration.

The climate change assessment by the world’s 5th largest economy relied on dozens of peer-reviewed reports that detail the effects climate change is having today and what to expect in the future, including extreme wildfires, droughts, heat waves and floods that are projected to occur with increasing frequency and severity.

“In California, facts and science still matter,” Gov. Jerry Brown said. “These findings are profoundly serious and will continue to guide us as we confront the apocalyptic threat of irreversible climate change.”

Read more at https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27082018/california-climate-change-assessment-evidence-global-warming-science-risks-policy-clean-energy

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Climate change will be deadlier, more destructive and costlier for California than previously believed, state warns

Tony Barboza, Bettina Boxall and Rosanna Xia, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

Heat waves will grow more severe and persistent, shortening the lives of thousands of Californians. Wildfires will burn more of the state’s forests. The ocean will rise higher and faster, exposing California to billions in damage along the coast.

These are some of the threats California will face from climate change in coming decades, according to a new statewide assessment released Monday by the California Natural Resources Agency.

The projections come as Californians contend with destructive wildfires, brutal heat spells and record ocean temperatures that scientists say have the fingerprints of global warming.

“This year has been kind of a harbinger of potential problems to come,” said Daniel Cayan, a climate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and one of the scientists coordinating the report. “The number of extremes that we’ve seen is consistent with what model projections are pointing to, and they’re giving us an example of what we need to prepare for.”

State leaders vowed to act on the research, even as the Trump administration moves to unravel climate change regulations and allow more pollution from cars, trucks and coal-fired power plants.

Read more at http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-california-state-climate-change-assessment-20180827-story.html

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The era of megafires: the crisis facing California and what will happen next

Daniel Swain, Crystal Kolden and John Abatzoglou, THE GUARDIAN

Three scientists explain the unprecedented danger facing the western US and call for new solutions to a growing threat from building in wildlands, fire suppression and climate change.

California is no stranger to fire. The temperate winters and reliably dry summers that make the Golden state such an attractive place to live are the same conditions that make this region among the most flammable places on Earth.

But even for a region accustomed to fire, the continuing wildfire siege has proven unprecedented. Although it is only early August, numerous very large, fast-moving, and exceptionally intense fires have already burned vast swaths of land throughout the state – consuming hundreds of thousands of acres and thousands of homes and claiming at least nine lives, including four firefighters. State and national firefighting resources are stretched to their limits; choking smoke inundated the state capital of Sacramento; and much of Yosemite national park is closed indefinitely.
Largest wildfire in California’s history expected to burn for rest of August
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California’s governor, Jerry Brown, has characterized these devastating wildfires as California’s “new normal”. But it would be a mistake to assume that the region has reached any semblance of a stable plateau. Instead, the likelihood of large, fast-moving, and dangerous wildfires will continue to increase in the coming decades – and it will combine with other demographic and ecological shifts to produce a large increase in the risk of megafires that threaten both human lives and the ecosystems we depend upon.

Immediately on the heels of California’s deadliest and most destructive fire season, just a year ago, the early ferocity of 2018 has unnerved even veteran firefighters. While the number of fires in California to date is unremarkable, the total area burned is extraordinary: five times the five-year average, in a decade that has already been characterized by fire activity well above historical levels.

The causes are complex, and people are part of the problem. In 1980, 24 million people lived in California; today there are nearly 40 million. Much of this population growth has occurred outside of the dense urban core of cities, resulting in rapid expansion of housing in suburban and semi-rural areas adjacent to wildlands.

Of the tens of thousands of homes burned by wildfires in California in recent decades, nearly all were located in this suburban-rural borderland. With housing shortages and high prices plaguing cities throughout the state, it is unsurprising that residents build on the fringes, places often replete with natural beauty. Yet residents are often unaware of the risks inherent in living there, and the need to mitigate those risks accordingly – their lives may depend upon it.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/07/california-wildfires-megafires-future-climate-change

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Climate change ruining California’s environment, report warns

Peter Fimrite, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Bigger, more intense forest fires, longer droughts, warmer ocean temperatures and an ever shrinking snowpack in the Sierra Nevada are “unequivocal” evidence of the ruinous domino-effects that climate change is having on California, a new California Environmental Protection Agency report states.

The 350-page report released Wednesday tracks 36 indicators of climate change, including a comprehensive list of human impacts and the effects on wildlife, the ocean, lakes, rivers and the mountains.

The study pulled together research from scientists, academia and research institutions and found that despite a marked downward trend in greenhouse-gas emissions in California, including a 90 percent drop in black carbon from tailpipe emissions over the past 50 years, CO2 levels in the atmosphere and in seawater are increasing at a steady rate.

Read more at https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Climate-change-ruining-California-s-12899272.php

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Why Is California rebuilding in fire country? Because you’re paying for it

Christopher Flavelle, BLOOMBERG NEWS

At the rugged eastern edge of Sonoma County, where new homes have been creeping into the wilderness for decades, Derek Webb barely managed to save his ranch-style resort from the raging fire that swept through the area last October. He spent all night fighting the flames, using shovels and rakes to push the fire back from his property. He was even ready to dive into his pool and breathe through a garden hose if he had to. His neighbors weren’t so daring—or lucky.

On a recent Sunday, Webb wandered through the burnt remains of the ranch next to his. He’s trying to buy the land to build another resort. This doesn’t mean he thinks the area won’t burn again. In fact, he’s sure it will. But he doubts that will deter anyone from rebuilding, least of all him. “Everybody knows that people want to live here,” he says. “Five years from now, you probably won’t even know there was a fire.”

As climate change creates warmer, drier conditions, which increase the risk of fire, California has a chance to rethink how it deals with the problem. Instead, after the state’s worst fire season on record, policymakers appear set to make the same decisions that put homeowners at risk in the first place. Driven by the demands of displaced residents, a housing shortage, and a thriving economy, local officials are issuing permits to rebuild without updating building codes. They’re even exempting residents from zoning rules so they can build bigger homes.

State officials have proposed shielding people in fire-prone areas from increased insurance premiums—potentially at the expense of homeowners elsewhere in California—in an effort to encourage them to remain in areas certain to burn again. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spent a record $700 million on fire suppression from July to January, yet last year Governor Jerry Brown suspended the fee that people in fire-prone areas once paid to help offset those costs.

Critics warn that those decisions, however well-intentioned, create perverse incentives that favor the short-term interests of homeowners at the edge of the wilderness—leaving them vulnerable to the next fire while pushing the full cost of risky building decisions onto state and federal taxpayers, firefighters, and insurance companies. “The moral hazard being created is absolutely enormous,” says Ian Adams, a policy analyst at the R Street Institute, which advocates using market signals to address climate risk. “If you want to rebuild in an area where there’s a good chance your home is going to burn down again, go for it. But I don’t want to be subsidizing you.”

Read more at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-03-01/why-is-california-rebuilding-in-fire-country-because-you-re-paying-for-it

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Op-Ed: A stark reminder of the importance of controlled burning

Jim Doerksen,  THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

My wife and I live on a beautiful LandPaths property on St. Helena Road in northeast Sonoma County. For more than 50 years, we have managed the property for timber production of about 50 percent Douglas firs and 50 percent redwoods and includes many native heritage specimens of hardwood trees. We have managed this forest to be as fire resistant as possible by pruning lower branches, thinning the trees, and burning brush piles.

One very important issue that seems to have been overlooked is the part played by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. This is the agency that notifies the public when it is a “spare the air day.” The rules and regulations are daunting and virtually impossible to adhere to, especially in forest management.

This is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to the air quality district in June 2016 in which we expressed our concern that air quality district standards were having an adverse effect on forestry cleanup “and will probably result in a mass uncontrollable fire” in Sonoma County.

“Not enough is being done about cleaning up all the brush and dying and fallen trees. To make matters worse, we have had a huge outbreak of bark beetle and sudden oak death. To add insult to injury, PG&E, in its great wisdom, has cut thousands of trees under the transmission lines and has left them to decay or burn.”

The analysis post-fire from CalFire agrees with our opinion as being correct. The fires have done a thorough job of cleaning up the forest floor, but frequent fires are necessary to prevent build-up of tree debris, weeds and brush.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/7972381-181/close-to-home-a-stark

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California's massive fires reveal our illusion of control over disasters 

Faith Kearns, BAY NATURE
I drove away from the Pepperwood Preserve in the Sonoma County hills on a hot and windy Sunday evening in October feeling hopeful. I’d spent part of the day talking with members of the California Naturalist Program about wildfire-induced emotional trauma in the region. As I arrived home in Berkeley later that evening, however, that peculiar fire weather feeling Joan Didion described as when the “winds show us how close to the edge we are” kicked into overdrive.
Several hours later, I awoke to the overwhelming smell of smoke and the news that people all over the Bay Area were hearing: a number of large fires were running wild through the beautiful place I’d left just the night before.
As the days went on, a horrifying picture emerged. Story after story of sudden and terrifying evacuations appeared. Whole neighborhoods had been awoken in the middle of the night by people—some police and firefighters, but many simply neighbors—banging on doors or honking horns as emergency alert systems lagged.
These reports from citizens are harrowing enough on their own but, as a scientist working on disasters like drought and wildfire in California for over a decade, I’m especially struck by the changing commentary from the emergency response community itself. As an example, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott told the Sacramento Bee that “it’s becoming more the norm now to have multiple damaging fires” at the same time. In the Ventura County Star, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathon Cox said the fire was “unstoppable.” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner noted the pace of alerts and evacuations simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of the fire. These are remarkable statements from top-down, command-and-control institutions.
Read more at: California’s Massive Fires Reveal Our Illusion of Control Over Disasters – Bay Nature

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Fire-scorched Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa focal point of debate over rebuilding

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
As Santa Rosa sets its sights on rebuilding following the deadly wildfires this month, the city has sent homeowners a clear message that it will not stand in their way.

Anyone who owned a home in the city has a right to rebuild it in the same place, as long as modern building codes are followed, officials have said.But some are asking whether it’s wise to let one neighborhood in particular — the hillside enclave of Fountaingrove — be rebuilt as it was, given that it has now burned to the ground twice in 53 years and wasn’t built according to city rules to begin with.
The Tubbs fire, which roared over the hills from Calistoga on Oct. 8, claimed hundreds of homes in the upscale neighborhood.

“I hesitate to even suggest this,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, a former Fountaingrove resident who lost her Oakmont home in the Nuns fire to the south. “But many people are starting to say, why are we — and this is in the city’s realm — why are we thinking about permitting the rebuilding of Fountaingrove?”
The question is not an idle one. The cleanup of debris left by the destruction of 2,900 homes citywide in the Tubbs and Nuns fires is already underway. If it goes according to plan, homesites could be ready to rebuild in a matter of a few months.

Read more at: Fire-scorched Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa focal point of debate over rebuilding | The Press Democrat –

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How California’s most destructive wildfire spread, hour by hour 

THE NEW YORK TIMES
An analysis by The New York Times of satellite images, combined with on-the-ground surveys, provides a more complete picture of the origin, spread and devastation of the fire that killed at least 22 people in and around the city.
The Tubbs fire destroyed at least 5,200 homes and structures, shown on the map below, making it the most destructive wildfire in state history, as well as one of the deadliest. The Times analysis also shows how quickly the fire spread in the crucial initial hours.
Read more at: How California’s Most Destructive Wildfire Spread, Hour by Hour – The New York Times