2018 Saw Simultaneous Wildfires Devastate California. That Could be the New Normal

By Ramin Skibba | December 12, 2018 2:27 pm
Woolsey Fire

Aerial view of Woolsey Fire, November 9, 2018. (Credits: US Forest Service/Public Domain)

(Inside Science) — Just a few weeks ago, two large wildfires caused massive destruction and at least 91 deaths in California, the Woolsey fire near Los Angeles and the Camp fire that engulfed the town of Paradise in the north. Residents and firefighters struggled to stop both fires, yet they can expect more like them to come.

Simultaneous large fires are becoming more common throughout the continental United States, according to new research presented by Alison Cullen today at the Society for Risk Analysis conference in New Orleans. The trend puts a strain on resources and will put more people living in wildland areas in danger.

Fires All Around

“The reason we care about simultaneity is because when you have multiple fires at once, there’s so much demand and competition for the personnel who are going to fight fires or try to manage them and where they and their equipment will be sent,” said Cullen, an environmental policy scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

She and her colleague, Harry Podschwit, logged all major fires in the lower 48 states and compared them between 1984 to 1999 and 2000 and 2015. They divided the territory into nine geographical areas, and then they looked at different fire definitions, such as fires above some size threshold or in the top 10 percent in that region. While a 10,000-acre fire counts as large in the Northeast, the Camp and Woolsey fires scorched about 150,000 and 100,000 acres respectively, though neither are in California’s top ten in recorded history, according to Calfire.

“What we found is, across nearly all the definitions in nearly all the regions, there was a significant increase in the level of simultaneity in the second time period,” Podschwit said.

For example, in the Southwest, the satellite record revealed only two incidents of wildfires that burned more than 50,000 acres during the first time period. But then 34 separate fires of that size burned in the area in the following 15 years — including an instance when five blazed simultaneously, in April and May 2011, Cullen and Podschwit found. They’re submitting their study for peer review in the next few weeks.

Their findings build on those of the federal government’s latest National Climate Assessment, released on Nov. 23. The nation’s top climate scientists found that wildfires are growing in frequency, intensity, extent and duration, and we can expect more large wildfires in the next half century, especially in the Western states. Furthermore, the study said that since 1984, climate change caused fires in the West to burn twice the area they would have without it.

Multiple factors contribute to this, argued LeRoy Westerling, an environmental engineer at University of California, Merced. Warm weather and severe droughts dry out trees and vegetation, making such “fuel” more vulnerable to flying embers. Bark beetles more easily infest trees stressed by drought, weakening them further. And when a fire inevitably ignites, strong winds can fan the flames.

“Climate change increases the natural variability, such as with precipitation. When you combine that with warmer temperatures, you ramp up your vulnerability,” Westerling said. In the Sierra Nevada mountains, more precipitation now comes as rain rather than snow, making for earlier snowmelt and a longer fire season. But these different factors vary around the country, Cullen and Podschwit find, since, for example, the Eastern U.S. experiences more summer rainfall, reducing fire risks.

While scientists have become more confident in their ability to attribute some extreme events, like major wildfires, to climate change, public views vary more widely. Political ideology remains the best predictor of climate change views, and people are loathe to change their minds, according to a recent study by Hilary Boudet, an Oregon State sociologist. Nevertheless, when an extreme event devastates a community and local officials frame it as a climate change-driven event, like the 2015 fire in Lake County, California, some people do modify their views.

To help people prepare for the next fire, scientists have begun developing “fireshed” maps, analogous to watersheds. These locate the places most likely to ignite and where the fires will likely spread. Such maps could inform where people choose to build — or where to rebuild after a fire.

But while people have begun considering retreating from hurricane flood zones or eroding coastlines threatened by sea level rise, discussions about building in fire-prone wildland areas haven’t coalesced in the same way. And by their presence, people inevitably start more fires in the wildlands if they live there, too.

“Accidental fires can happen because your car is overheated on the side of the freeway, or somebody throws a cigarette butt out the window, but they can also happen just because someone has a chain hanging out the back end [of their car], and it causes a spark that lands at the wrong time and place, and boom, you have a fire,” said Natasha Stavros, a fire ecologist and engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

We have a different relationship with fire than with other extreme weather, since, for example, no one ever talks about trying to stop a hurricane, she pointed out. “The Camp Fire was burning at 80 acres per minute — that’s 61 football fields per minute. Why do we think we can control that?”


[This article originally appeared on Inside Science]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
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  • OWilson

    Since 85% of wildfires are human caused, and the escalating damage is due to humans insisting on building in dry brush areas, known to be perennial wildfire areas, perhaps there are other, more effective and economical mitigation alternatives than trying to fine tune the entire Earth’s climate?

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Frequent small fires clear brush, sparing trunks and canopies in historically sparse forests. Enviro-whiners prevent fires and plant dense tourist forests. The powder in six pistol rounds pretty much sum to one shotgun shell. A bullet to the shoulder is unremarkably survivable, A 12 ga #4 buck shotgun shell will render your shoulder into mist. . And so it goes in the Soviet of California’s Democrat Socialist pseudoforests. Raise taxes!

    • OWilson

      For a little sober perspective, rather than constant chicken little screeching!

      “Forest fires are a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem. Even healthy forests contain dead trees and decaying plant matter; when a fire turns them to ashes, nutrients return to the soil instead of remaining captive in old vegetation.

      And, when fire rages through dry underbrush, it clears thick growth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and encourage the growth of native species. Fire frees these plants from the competition delivered by invasive weeds and eliminates diseases or droves of insects that may have been causing damage to old growth. Wildflowers begin to bloom abundantly.

      Most young, healthy trees are resilient enough to survive a forest fire and will soon have a growth spurt, thanks to flames that thin light-banning canopies above [source: National Geographic]. And scientists report young-growth forests recovering from fire are home to more diverse species, in both plants and animals [source: Krock]. This is because the remnants of burned trees offer attractive habitats to birds and small mammals, and nutrients from burned vegetation continue to leach into the soil to fuel the birth of new plants [source: Pacific Biodiversity Institute].

      Indeed they are necessary the survival of some forest species:

      Lodgepole Pine Trees Love Forest Fires – indianalodgepole-pine-trees-love-forest-fires/ – “The seeds are locked in tight, and the cones can’t open unless they’re exposed to VERY high temperatures like the type of temperatures that fire provides. “Serotinous” is a scientific term for a seed that requires an environmental trigger in order to be released. For the lodgepole pine, that trigger is heat”.

      Same with the Bristlecone Pine. It would die out without fire to burst open the seed cones.

      Mother nature doesn’t easily suffer fools, who think they can come in and squat wherever they like, and rely on governments to bail them out of their poor choices! :)

  • Mike Richardson

    Facts are often neglected in the knee-jerk climate change denier responses to articles such as this. While there has certainly been new building in former wilderness, the town of Paradise had stood for over 100 years before the Camp Fire. Climate change resulted in drier conditions, making the town more vulnerable to the devastating fire. Also, blaming California may feel good to hyperpartisans, but the majority of forested land in the state is actually under federal management. Like I said, they don’t worry about letting facts get in the way of rhetoric.

    • OWilson

      Those that ignore the incessant and dire warnings of “more frequent and more devastating” natural catastrophes in obviously vulnerable areas, like dry forest, eroding cliffs, below active volcanos, on earthquake faults, hurricane zones, Tornado Alleys, and low lying coastal floodlands, must learn for themselves the hard way, how nature is always a threat to eradicate them.

      It’s the human condition.

      Folks that ignore these warnings, and do not adapt and mitigate, will find themselves flooded out, swept away, or buried by earthquakes, landslides and the like, while putting their families at great risk!

      Appealing to some nebulous failed peace organization like the U.N. and assorted governments to change the entire Earth’s climate is not a practical solution to thinking folks.

      Didn’t you tell us that you got flooded out of your South East Louisiana home a couple of years ago, and promptly re-built on the same spot?

      What was your excuse? You are one of the most voriferous alarmists we have around here, about how climate change is getting catastrophically worse every year?

      You, of all people, should have known better!


      • Mike Richardson

        You live in a hurricane prone area that gets hit quite frequently. Far more frequently than the flood which had never before struck where I live.
        Karma will catch up with you, I think. It’s unfortunate that others who do not deserve it will suffer along with you. C’est la vie.

        • OWilson

          Cement blocks in my modest abode, and high ground have brought me, and most of my local population safely through the worst hurricanes, and a couple of earthquakes over the last 10 years.

          Read the story of the “Three Little Piggies” and you might get a hint! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Yes, obviously you and any group with whom you identify must be exempt from the troubles of more mundane mortals, in true tribalistic reasoning. 😏
            I certainly wish no disaster upon the locals who must already deal with you, but I’m sure they realize that nobody is immune to tragedy, and that those who place themselves on pedestals while taking smug satisfaction in the suffering of others particularly tempt fate.
            Climate change is causing, and will increasingly cause suffering for people around the globe. You can continue to bury your head in the sand and feel superior to those who have already felt those impacts, but whether directly or indirectly, you will be affected, too.

          • OWilson

            I take no “smug satisfaction in the suffering of others”. That is in your deluded addled head, along with the rest of of your rambling nonsense.

            No more than I am a “closet Fascist”, mental incompetent”, “senile” with a “deluded wife”, “narcisisist”, “plagiarist”, “hyperpartisan”, and a “liar” to boot!

            Aye yi yi!!! You obviously have issues!

            Here, common sense is king! No lectures or insults! They might even offer you a suggestion how not to get flooded out yet again.

            Or perhaps you could fly Al Gore and Leo di Caprio in to instruct them how to pay carbon taxes and lower their already low carbon footprint?

            Anyway, in the spirit of our island goodwill towards all, have a nice day, Mikey! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            I always do, Ol’Wilson! 😁


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