California is burning. What the hell are you going to do about it?
August 6, 2015 10:55 PM   Subscribe

The Rocky Fire, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, has defied projections and containment for more than a week. Almost 1/3 of the firefighters dispatched to California's wildfires are working on the Rocky Fire, which is over 100 square miles and only 40% contained. Last weekend, aided by the hot, dry weather, the fire doubled in size in five hours. This fire season has been one of the worst in California, particularly because of the drought and years of budget crises. It is so big that the smoke can even be seen in space. "'It has gone in every direction with intensity,' including downhill said Scott Upton, a unit chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and an expert on fire behavior. 'It’s like an amoeba.'"

From the NYTimes: The ability of a fire to keep catching — called its probability of ignition — is assessed by fire experts. The Rocky Fire has a probability of ignition of 100 percent, almost unheard-of when the tinder is forest and scrub, as it is here. “That’s something I’ve never seen,” Captain Oatman said.

The fire is in an area that is rugged terrain, difficult to navigate, and with no recorded burn history. Evacuations of residents and animals have been challenging, particularly a 500 pound pig who was not keen to leave. Many residents stayed and tried to defend their land from the unpredictable Rocky fire that resisted containment.

Governor Brown used his visit to highlight the impact of climate change on California.

Many stunning and post-apocalyptical photos have been taken:1 2 3
posted by guster4lovers (38 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Do amoebas really go in every direction with intensity? What does that even mean?
posted by biffa at 11:35 PM on August 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


California was once a desert, now it will soon be a desert again.
Laugh about dams.
posted by Mblue at 12:13 AM on August 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


It rained for a little bit tonight in my area of Northern California, after the Republican debate and before Jon Stewart's last episode. It felt so hopeful, but also incredibly sad - California really is burning. Definitely feels like a shift towards some kind of uncertain future.

Also, the defunding of firefighters is a shameful, shameful thing. I need to look into ways of supporting them :(
posted by yueliang at 12:15 AM on August 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


California was once a desert, now it will soon be a desert again.
Laugh about dams.


Really? I'm surprised Redwoods could grow for thousands of years in a desert.
posted by MikeKD at 12:54 AM on August 7, 2015 [22 favorites]


MikeKD: Read "Cadillac Desert" by Mark Reisner. CA is a large state, and the places that harbour major economic interests were deserts and the Army Corps of Engineers along with the Bureau of Reclamation worked their balls off to redirect massive amounts of water into (primarily but not exclusivley) Socal to enable the societies that exist there.

Redwoods don't disprove the fact that CA is mostly a desert.
posted by ugly at 2:52 AM on August 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


California does have large desert areas, but the Rocky Fire is in a decidedly non‐desert portion of the state.
posted by Fongotskilernie at 4:02 AM on August 7, 2015 [16 favorites]


Yeah, bringing up deserts just isn't relevant to this fire. This part of the state is not a desert, nor was it a desert when people settled there.

The Rocky Fire started because there's an insane drought, and rainfall has been pitiful. Not only that, but this particular region apparently hasn't burned at all in recorded history, which is a long time even in that part of the state. The result is a lot of dry, flammable vegetation. No wonder the fire is going out of control like this.

There's nothing being reclaimed by nature here, it's just a bad side effect of climate change.
posted by teponaztli at 4:04 AM on August 7, 2015 [15 favorites]


It is so big that the smoke can even be seen in space.

That really isn't a great way to make something seem huge anymore. You can tell I'm balding from space.
posted by Hubajube at 4:30 AM on August 7, 2015 [28 favorites]


Balding from space, like, because of cosmic rays or something? That's awesome, man.
posted by No-sword at 4:35 AM on August 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


What the hell are you going to do about it?

Well, I moved back to the East Coast...
posted by davros42 at 4:49 AM on August 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I drove through four small fires yesterday. The whole west is so dry that normal fire assumptions are off the table, and the appallingly stupid choice to allow people to live in places that should have been left vacant of buildings makes fires far more dangerous and costly.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:49 AM on August 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Earlier this year there was a forest fire in northern Minnesota, in Beltrami State Forest. That whole area is far from being a desert, in fact it's basically a giant swamp. And yet it burned. It's less common than out west, but not uncommon, to have fires up there—where there's forest there can be forest fires. The ground can still be frozen from the winter (as it was in Beltrami) but if the above-ground vegetation is dry it'll burn.

So while California's water-use problems are an easy target that's just not what's happening here: the land that's burning is forested and mountainous, upstream from anything humans could be doing policy-wise to affect its water situation—other that the climate change we're all doing.

And looking at it on the map, I'm just thankful there's a big lake right next to it for the water-dropping planes to tank up. The shorter the round-trip between water source and fire, the more water one plane can drop in a day.
posted by traveler_ at 5:23 AM on August 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


There was a lot of lightning around the Bay Area last night (after the Republican debate - coincidence?), but I haven't seen anything about them having started more fires, which is a relief.
posted by rtha at 5:47 AM on August 7, 2015


What the hell are you going to do about it?

Vote for sane politicians who understand climate change, know that unrestrained rural residential development is a blight, and whose chief interest is not simply slashing taxes for large corporations, for starters.
posted by aught at 6:09 AM on August 7, 2015 [11 favorites]


Vote for sane politicians who will have the willingness and ability to raise taxes, particularly on the wealthy, so that there can be real preventive programs and no fear that we won't have, e.g., lifeguards at the lake because all the money went on fires?

It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, of course, and it's also easier to imagine a revolution than politicians who will raise taxes.

I mean, you can sign me up - I would absolutely pay more taxes, and I'm a secretary.
posted by Frowner at 6:20 AM on August 7, 2015 [14 favorites]


I heard a story on NPR the other day about some small town in California where the residents have been doing their own first aid and support, not because the Red Cross and state agencies can't get to them, but because they don't want "the government" in their business or telling them what to do...which would include evacuation warnings. Ideology über alles, I guess.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:48 AM on August 7, 2015


It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

Well, we've gone to the movies and seen the blockbusters about the end of the world, a bunch of times, with buckets of popcorn and boxes of junior mints, or streamed them to our smart TVs. It's fun to watch those, we _get_ the end of the world. The end of capitalism, though -- no one's making that movie. Thinking about it just gives us a bellyache and makes us sad.

but because they don't want "the government" in their business or telling them what to do

I don't even know what to say anymore about this kind of shit-for-brains thinking. I honestly don't believe they should all burn alive or lose all their valuables because of their stupidity, but I will be hard-pressed not to be enraged when, in the end, the gummint and librul charity groups they profess to loathe, and claim not to need, really do end up saving their sorry asses despite everything.
posted by aught at 6:58 AM on August 7, 2015


Well, just a wish here that everyone involved is safe.
posted by newdaddy at 7:04 AM on August 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


California Burning... On such a summer's day... such a summer's day..
posted by jefflowrey at 7:24 AM on August 7, 2015


There's nothing being reclaimed by nature here, it's just a bad side effect of climate change.

This is not the first insane drought, nor the last, that California nor North America will ever see. This one *may* be related to climate change. But major droughts in North America happen all the time, doubly so in the SW. The 1930's drought was far more extensive and far deeper, the 1950's drought was as deep and much more extensive, the 2000-2003 drought was just about as bad.

What is different about this drought is the concurrent heat wave. But drought conditions in California are not new by any means whatsoever. 1958-1961 were extremely bad there, with 1961 the worst conditions in the 20th century, 1977 had a record low snowpack statewide, 1986-1991 was very dry, they were caught up in the big 2000-2003 drought, had their own regional drought in 2006-2007, then we come up to the current one.

The fact is much of California is an arid climate that exists in a feast-or-famine climate when it comes to rainfall. When it's feast -- when the ENSO is just so, they see amazingly high rainfall, so high that floods and mudslides are the big news stories. And heads up on what you'll be seeing in January, BTW! But when that fades, the weather dries out, and so does most of the states, and once it does, then, well, it starts to burn again, and as it continues to dry, it burns harder.

Climate change may make the droughts happen more often. They might make them happen less often! We simply don't know yet -- not nearly enough data to tell. They make them hotter is all we can tell so far, but if they accelerated the ENSO, they might make Southern California wetter, which would in fact break the drought cycle that has ruled California for millennia.

Which, of course, is the whole point of Climate Change. That's why we call it Climate Change. The Climate changes. It's not just warming. Patterns change. Things that were dry get wet, things that were wet get dry, and things that were warm can even become colder.

But fires and drought? Nothing new. This one is severe, yes, one of the worst we've measured - -but we've only been measuring for a little over a century, and California has been dry for millennia. Tree ring evidence clearly shows far worse drought periods in the past. We just weren't there measuring the rain -- or fighting the fires.

Indeed, most of the Western US Forests ecology is based on fire. They burn. That's what they do. It's a dry land, there's plenty of sparks, plenty of timber. Fire is natural.

We're the problem. Nature doesn't have an issue with the fire. We do.
posted by eriko at 7:31 AM on August 7, 2015 [24 favorites]


California was once a desert, now it will soon be a desert again.

Yes, parts of California have been a desert. Some still are. California was also once a vast sea, what's your fucking point?
posted by entropicamericana at 8:59 AM on August 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


Heart goes out to California – forest fires are very hard to deal with. As a teenager, I remember seeing hillsides in Lake Tahoe burnt to a crisp one summer, and then watching the vegetation come back over the years. A family friend explained that forest fires are natural renewal mechanisms.

He would ask if forest fires had happened before humans populated the forests. Of course they had, we said. So if fire is the natural condition of the forest, he said, then its us that's it's really a problem for.

That being said, the damming of rivers and general manipulation of the land certainly changes fire patterns, as does climate change. But assuming that forest fires have been occurring as long as there have been forests, we can assume that the forests have evolved to deal with fires.

I had an occasion in Eureka to spend some time with a microbiologist from France, who was also a great student of urban design. It was fascinating to hear his view of American urban development – and it's one that I haven't forgotten.

His caution of America in general was the cities on the coasts. He said to look at Europe and Asia, and look at where cities naturally sprung up. The majority were around inland rivers first (London, Paris, Rome, Beijing, Nanjing, Delhi), and protected harbours (Amsterdam, Hamburg, Naples, Oslo, Stockholm).

"But not in America. Here, you put your biggest cities on the coasts. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston."

I assumed that we because of changes in defence – that European cities had been set back from the sea because of naval attacks. He was quite convincing that climate change was also a factor – that the climate has been changing continuously, and that older civilisations had naturally evolved where it was not only most defensible, but also most stable.

And I mention that because California is very young, and we do not have an accurate picture of how the natural environment of the state changes. For instance, it's been said that it was settled during a very dry period, and that it was generally a much wetter climate. Or that it is generally a very dry climate, and it was settled during a very wet period.

One thing that I think is important to note is that there is a reason that North and South America did not develop civilisations of the same population and density along with the rest of the world, until technology was sufficiently advanced. Whilst I am sure that there are great answers for this, I have a few simple intuitions.

That the environment in America was not as stable as the environment in other places. Looking at the native Americans, they developed small tribes of nomadic populations. They did not settle in the same way as Asia and Europe. Despite having access to ample resources, and ostensibly less competition.

When I see things like this in California, I always go back to the point that one of the very things that people loved about it was that it was rugged and beautiful, and divorced from the rest of the world. Having started there, I never considered it remote. Now living in London, I see that California is rather remote – a distant outpost. It may be incredibly productive, but it is essentially a sliver of civilisation separated from the rest of the world by deserts, mountains, and oceans.

So while forest fires rage there with great intensity, and I consider that forest fires are a natural part of the forest lifecycle, I then think that California may still be a relatively unsettled land.

Perhaps given its location, is has always been subject to climate change in a more extreme way than other areas of civilisation. If that's the case, and it does have a smaller margin of insulation against climate change, that is invaluable to listen to. For while other large areas may have greater margins against climate change – better buffers – what we are seeing now in California may be the accelerated impact of climate change.

A water system going from full to empty in the course of five years. Forest fires becoming unmanageable within the same time period. An ecosystem far more dynamic than it may have appeared in the century of records kept about it.

While many places will be hit with climate change when the sea rises – a slow problem – California is being hit by a different problem, which is lack of rainfall. Crazy if you think about it – that 1/8 of global GDP is at risk because of lack of rain. A grand statement on interdependency and systems thinking.

None of that helps the people on the ground today, of course. I only (continue) to hope for rain.

And then we most consider the other side of the problem – which I call the slot machine problem – which is what if California moves into its prehistoric cycles of long droughts punctuated by extreme wet periods. From what I understand, that is the most likely scenario, for it is neither a desert, nor a rainforest. The geology is apparently remarkably consistent with an inconsistent climate history.

Overall, I also hope to see California's tremendous ingenuity shift from social networks and camp films, to solving its own climate problem – for that as an export will help the entire world deal with these issues, as they arrive in other places.
posted by nickrussell at 9:15 AM on August 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Climate change may have dried out the fuel, but the extent of dense trees, deadfalls, etc... are in part because of about a century of overly aggressive fire suppression. We're going to have to do something to restrict how far we're willing to go to save homes built in areas that are fundamentally unsafe.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:27 AM on August 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Meanwhile up the coast the very remote vacation town of Stehekin has a fire closing in on it.
posted by dw at 9:38 AM on August 7, 2015


Wildland fires are a complex issue worldwide. Maybe it would be worthwhile to look at forest fires and other wildland vegetation fires on a global and historic scale to understand the current situation and the place of fire in ecosystems. The largest, most damaging and deadly wildland fires in North America occurred in the forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Brunswick. Huge portions of the virgin forests burned in the early nineteenth were converted to farmland and never returned to forest.
To say that California experiences fires because it is a desert is an easy, but inaccurate statement. California certainly has areas of desert but there’s a lot more to the state. Alaska isn’t desert but the biggest fires currently burning in the US are in Alaska. Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela all experience major forest fires but they’re not generally viewed as deserts. Russia has had many major fires in Siberia. Europe, North Africa and the Middle East all experience forest fires.
If you’ve seen the aftermath of a forest fire you’ve seen standing trees stripped of branches and limbs. Those bare trees are what timber harvesting would have removed. What burns during a forest fire is what commercial logging leaves behind. Logging isn’t a solution to forest fire issues.
The amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from forest, tundra and other wildland vegetation fires is a serious concern. I’m unable, or perhaps afraid, to imagine what the future holds.
posted by X4ster at 10:15 AM on August 7, 2015


"But not in America. Here, you put your biggest cities on the coasts. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston."

That's nice and portentious, but it's not true:
(a) those aren't all our "biggest cities" - Boston and SF aren't in the top 10, whereas seven of the top 10 cities and six of the top 10 metro areas (where Boston sneaks in) aren't on ocean coasts, and
(b) even so, we don't "put" big cities anywhere; people move to the coast (and cities grow) for a number of reasons.
posted by psoas at 10:40 AM on August 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure this fire is that bad in terms of size by CA standards. I mean, it's certainly big. But we regularly get giant fires around here. It is earlier than usual, though. In 2003 down south we had awful fires. Again in 2007 and 2008.
posted by persona au gratin at 10:50 AM on August 7, 2015 [1 favorite]




I'm about 50 crow-flying miles away from the SE edge of the Rocky fire (and about 15 from the Wragg fire) and the sidewalks here look like someone spilled an ashtray on them. And, as I was driving to work this morning, I saw several tractors disc-ing recently harvested fields, with all of that dust ascending in huge clouds.

I love California, but it's not a very good place for us asthmatics.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:36 AM on August 7, 2015 [1 favorite]



Redwoods don't disprove the fact that CA is mostly a desert.

Oh good grief. It is not "mostly a desert", and stating that as if it's a fact has nothing to do with where this fire is, or why there is so much fuel (i.e. plants) to burn. If it were mostly a desert in California we wouldn't have thousands of acres of fires burning every year, as anyone who has ever spent time in an actual desert can tell you.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:00 PM on August 7, 2015 [12 favorites]


"But fires and drought? Nothing new. This one is severe, yes, one of the worst we've measured - -but we've only been measuring for a little over a century, and California has been dry for millennia. Tree ring evidence clearly shows far worse drought periods in the past. We just weren't there measuring the rain -- or fighting the fires. "

Yeah, there was a big climate change study that came out, what, almost a year ago? And it basically said that while there are a bunch of local events that we can tie to global climate change (glaciers melting, South Sea islands flooding, even changes in Western Australia), the Californian drought is more likely to be part of a regular pattern of climate variation that California has seen since forever. That doesn't mean we should give up on efforts to mitigate climate change, just that it's worth being wary of the Hot Day = Global Warming correlation.

"That the environment in America was not as stable as the environment in other places. Looking at the native Americans, they developed small tribes of nomadic populations. They did not settle in the same way as Asia and Europe. Despite having access to ample resources, and ostensibly less competition."

That's not true at all, to the extent that it's really, really misleading about Native American populations.

First, there were tons of Native American civilizations that were sedentary. Iroquois, Aztecs, Incas, Pueblo, Mound Builders, etc. etc. etc. Second off, many of the nations that we think of as nomadic only became so after European contact, when a combination of guns, horses, invasion and trade (e.g. fur) shifted settlement patterns. This was especially true for a lot of the First Nations in the Midwest — parts of the Algonquin nations, like the Ojibwe, were displaced from established agricultural settlements further east and became more seasonally nomadic as Europeans moved West. This was a big part of the Seven Years War (aka French and Indian Wars) that happened in the 1700s. In turn, the westward movement of those nations displaced those further west — the Dakota and some other Sioux nations became nomadic Plains nations as warfare with Algonquins (particularly the Ojibwe) pushed them further west. The technological advances of European contact — specifically horses, guns and wheels — enabled much more nomadic lifestyles while colonialism and white supremacism forced First Nations peoples from their established settlements.

There are other theses for why American indigenous nations didn't establish the same population densities as Europeans or Asians (and really, with Asia, we're talking about a relatively small subset of the geography where ancient and early modern population density was high), but things like lack of domesticable large animals, lack of wheels and the greater North-South climate variation (as opposed to local climate variation, which is what you're proposing) were all bigger factors. Guns, Germs and Steel has some flaws, but it addresses a lot of this stuff.

Sorry, it's just that one of the things that makes me really cranky is when Native Americans get reduced and mythologized to a monolithic stereotype, especially based on post-Columbian ideas about how their cultures or politics functioned. (It's the same reason that I get grouchy any time I hear someone blathering on with the "Native Americans didn't believe anyone could own the land" nonsense. Native American nations had as much variation as any other TWO CONTINENTS of different nations, and it's pretty sad that the local, individual histories of a bunch of different peoples have gotten subsumed into one essentialized Euronormative narrative.)
posted by klangklangston at 12:13 PM on August 7, 2015 [21 favorites]


But fires and drought? Nothing new. This one is severe, yes, one of the worst we've measured - -but we've only been measuring for a little over a century, and California has been dry for millennia. Tree ring evidence clearly shows far worse drought periods in the past. We just weren't there measuring the rain -- or fighting the fires.

Indeed, most of the Western US Forests ecology is based on fire. They burn. That's what they do. It's a dry land, there's plenty of sparks, plenty of timber. Fire is natural.


This forest, however, hasn't burned nearly as often as other parts of California. That's what's remarkable and new about it. The fact that it has gone since recorded history without burning automatically sets it apart from the forests that routinely get a wildfire season.

There's also differing degrees of drought. The tree ring evidence for past droughts show that the last drought of this magnitude was most likely 800 years ago, or more. Yes, periods of wet and dry are normal for California, but this is a historic drought. Sure, there's evidence of an 80 year drought in the (if I'm remembering right) 15th century, but intensity is a major factor as well as length. And in fact, one of the factors intensifying this current drought has been high temperatures - we've seen far less snow pack than we ordinarily would, even with the precipitation we've gotten, because it's been too warm for it. California's waterways are fed by mountain snowpack, and what's been happening instead is that precipitaton has been running off in flood events instead of staying put as snowpack.

Patterns of drought may not be new, but if we can agree that the droughts appear to be getting hotter because of global climate change, than we need to recognize the possibility that this could continue to give California much more intense droughts than we've previously had. Precipitation types have been different, and that's something arguably unique about this drought.

Furthermore, the reason to bring up climate change in this conversation is that, drought aside, the wildfire seasons have been starting earlier and lasting longer than they previously did. Again, due to high temperatures. A couple of the linked articles are about how the USFS has had to adapt to these changes, and how they're considering them a new norm. Yes, everyone has been talking about how we're going to get a ton of rainfall this winter due to rising ocean temperatures, but I have yet to hear a climate scientist say this will end the drought. In order for that to happen, we'll need to get three times the normal rainfall levels, and it remains to be seen if we will.

I know everyone seems to see every little outlier event and attribute it to global climate change, but I follow the NOAA and NWS pretty closely and they keep posting about how many of these intense events, like the current drought and anticipated El Nino winter, are likely influenced by larger shifts in climate.
posted by teponaztli at 12:49 PM on August 7, 2015


mudpuppie: you have my sympathy. Fire soot gives me asthma. In 2003 ash was falling from the sky 40 miles from the fires. I got asthma that year.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:10 PM on August 7, 2015


Full disclosure: I'm watching Rocky Fire closely as the southwest corner is about two miles from my parents' house. They are lucky that containment on that side seems to be working. Though my mother was told by one of the firefighters that in this fire, "containment" really just means "the shit that's already burnt."

Comforting.
posted by guster4lovers at 3:50 PM on August 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I remember back in 2008 or so when we had another bad year, driving down the 101 past a huge fire right off the side of the highway. I was in my convertible with the top down, but a few embers actually made it inside where the seal was having some issues. It was like a light sprinkling of fire.

And that was in the middle of the SF Peninsula, not out in the wilderness.

It is not "mostly a desert"

Indeed, and as that map shows none of the major cities are in deserts, and the desert area is much less populated than most of the state.

And, of course, none of the fires are happening in the desert.
posted by thefoxgod at 5:25 PM on August 7, 2015


guster4lovers- I hope your folks are okay and safe, and best wishes for everyone up north close to it.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:46 PM on August 7, 2015


guster4lovers: sending good thoughts to your parents' house! (And I'd do that even if I hadn't seen Guster in concert 11 times.)
posted by persona au gratin at 1:43 PM on August 8, 2015




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