As firefighters finally began to make progress containing record wildfires in northern California, the state began to count the damage amid warnings that the conflagrations were an example of the new normal coming to America’s mountain west, wrought by changes to its treasured climate.
“California’s fires are far from out,” the New York Times reports. Thousands of firefighters are still at work, and tens of thousands of people remain under mandatory evacuation from their homes.
Still, “fire officials have expressed cautious optimism about bringing the fires into containment.”
The tentative victory has not come cheaply.
As of Monday morning, uncontrolled blazes had “killed at least 41 people and burned about 5,700 structures and over 213,000 acres since they exploded in force on October 8 and 9—record totals for a state that is used to wildfires,” the Times reports.
Fighting fires had “already chewed through more than half of the state’s US$469 million emergency fund for big fires,” even before this month’s breakout, ABC News notes.
Nor was California the only state stretching to maintain its firefighters in the woods. “With costs approaching $400 million by late September, Montana also struggled to pay for firefighting this year,” ABC added,
That reflects a national trend of rising wildfire-fighting expenses. The U.S. federal government, ABC states, “spent more than $2.7 billion on firefighting in its most recently finished budget year, a record that surpassed the previous high point of $2.1 billion set just two years ago.”
Indeed, California’s drama was very far from unique along the length of North America’s mountain spine. As of mid-September, setting aside this summer’s record fires in British Columbia, “there were 39 uncontained large fires in the United States,” Yale Climate Connections pointed out in an analysis of the events. “The vast majority of those burned in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Montana.”
“The smoke from those fires went everywhere,” Yale Climate noted. “Smoke plumes from the Pacific Northwest extended as far south as Mexico and eastward into the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, millions of people across North America were potentially breathing in smoke.”
Whatever the final toll in lives, health, economic losses, and ongoing social and personal disruption (questions were already being raised about where the evacuated would return, in a region short of accommodation before so many homes were left in ashes), Californians and others in the mountain west were being told that 2017’s fire season was unlikely to prove exceptional at all.
“Increasing temperature plays a significant role in making these fires more explosive, and covering ground more quickly,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told McClatchy News.
Over the six months leading up to the wildfire outbreak, mean temperatures over northern California “were the warmest in 123 years,” the news agency reports. Redding, at the north end of the state’s heartland Central Valley, “baked under 72 days of 100°F or higher, surpassing the previous record of 69 days set a half-century earlier.”
The dry summer followed the state’s wettest winter on record—a pattern of extremes that climate scientists say is being amplified by a hotter atmosphere and warmer ocean, and that paradoxically encouraged this year’s fires. As McClatchy explains it, citing Swain, “first, the wet winter spurred robust vegetative growth. Then the record temperatures dried out that brush faster than in a ‘normal’ year.”
“Worse extremes can be expected in coming decades,” the news agency warns. “Droughts, heat waves, reduced snow pack, winter storms, sea level rise—all are expected to intensify, say scientists who monitor climate change.”
That’s not to say that 2017’s conditions will be back next year, or every year. “We will still have natural climate variability,” Swain observed. “Some years will be hotter than we are used to, and some years cooler. But the hot years will be outside the realm of our previous experience.”
The U.S. National Climate Assessment has forecast that even average summers in California will be more than 30% drier by the end of the century than they are today. According to the New York Times, many climate scientists believe that will also increase the power and dryness of seasonal El Diablo winds, which first desiccated northern California’s vegetation, then fanned the flames consuming the dry foliage.
Citing the U.S. National Climate Assessment, Yale Climate predicts “that the median annual area burned by wildfires in the Northwest will quadruple by the 2080s.”