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The Terrifying New Normal

We're living in a new climate with new dangers



As I walked among the embers of what was the Coffey Park neighborhood Monday morning, my eyes burning from the smoke as I watched weeping residents gazing at where their homes once stood, I was shocked not only by the devastation, but by the fact that a wildfire could reach so far into the city. I thought wildfires were supposed to stay in wildlands, not move into subdivisions with busy intersections, schools and restaurants. Of course, fires don't follow any such rules, but if this working-class neighborhood could fall victim to a wildfire raging down the hills like a flood, what neighborhood is safe?

Indeed, Coffey Park was outside of the city's "very severe" hazard zone. As the

Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, that meant homes were exempt from regulations to make them more fire-resistant. It's not clear how such precautions would have protected the neighborhood from the early-morning firestorm. More than 1,200 homes were incinerated in a matter of minutes.

I don't see this as city or state negligence, but as a chilling testament that we live in a different era of fire danger. The climate has changed and so have the risks. This is the terrifying new normal.

Sparking PG&E power lines may have pulled the trigger on last week's catastrophic fires, but evidence shows that climate change built the weapon and aimed it right at the North Bay. And we remain under the gun.

From the most destructive hurricane season on record to the devastating fires still burning in the North Bay, the reality is becoming devastatingly clear: the climate has changed and the conditions for fires will intensify. It was just two years ago that that the Valley fire exploded in the parched hills of Lake, Napa and northern Sonoma counties, burning 76,000 acres and 1,350 homes and killing three. Northern California's 15 concurrent fires have scorched 220,000 acres, burned an estimated 5,700 structures and caused at least 40 deaths, making them the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history.

"That's the way it is with a warming climate, dry weather and reduced moisture," said Gov. Jerry Brown in a press conference last week. "These kinds of catastrophes have happened, and they are going to continue to happen."

Wildfires in California are a fact of life. Fire plays an important ecological role in the chaparral and conifer forest ecosystems of the North Bay. Problems arise when people choose to live in those fire-prone environments. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and local fire departments mandate property owners carve out a ring of defensible space to help defend against wild fires. But there was little chance fending off wind-whipped fires of such intensity and speed.

"We know that Northern California's climate has changed," says Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University, "and we're in a climate that's different than when a lot of what we have on the landscape was designed and built."

Climate plays an important role in wildfire risk, but it's not the only influence, says Diffenbaugh. Human elements such as ignition, forest management and where and how we build also play a role, he says. Climate change is the biggest human element of all.

"Climate sets the stage, and we have strong evidence that the global warming that's already happened has increased wildfire risk in the western United States through the effects of temperature drying the landscape," he says.

"For this particular event, we can really see the impacts of heat. We had record hot conditions during the drought. We had record high temperatures that coincided with record low precipitation that created the most severe drought on record that killed tens of millions of trees. Those record drought conditions were followed by extremely wet conditions this winter that were again followed by record hot conditions."

Rising temperatures also lead to less snowfall in the Sierra and earlier melting of that snow, Diffenbaugh says, meaning there is less runoff available during the hot, dry days of fall.


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