SANTA ROSA, Calif. — As wildfires engulf nearly 170,000 acres of Northern California wine country, questions are swirling about the role of climate change in causing damage of historic proportions.
The fires, which started late Sunday night in the hills of Napa and Sonoma counties, quickly ballooned to 22 separate conflagrations in eight counties, killing at least 21 people by Tuesday evening. The Tubbs Fire, in Sonoma County, has been responsible for at least 11 deaths so far, making it the sixth-deadliest fire in state history. Nearly 300 people are still reported missing and 25,000 have been evacuated in Sonoma County alone, with more than 3,500 homes and businesses destroyed.
Strong winds were responsible for the fires' quick incursion into urban areas, but months of record-high temperatures, preceded by heavy rainfall last winter, also fueled the destructive power of the fire that burned through the region, climate experts said.
Residents of inland Northern California are now experiencing the confluence of these trends. The fires are expected to persist for weeks, until the rainy season begins next month. Strong winds are predicted to return as soon as tomorrow, giving firefighters a narrow window to get the blazes under control.
When asked if she thought climate change had contributed to the fires, Santa Rosa resident Della Littwin was unequivocal. “As my late husband used to say, 'No swinging dogshit, Sherlock,'” said Littwin, who was volunteering at a middle school that had been converted to a shelter. “I call it the way I see it,” she said. “I do not go for any of this nonsense.”
A chaplain providing emotional support yesterday to about 250 evacuees at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building said he had no doubt the fires are a symptom of climate change, which is itself a harbinger of the “end times” that several religions believe will usher in a personal or universal age of enlightenment.
“This is it,” said Jerry Jaramillo, a Pentecostal chaplain at Hope Chapel in Santa Rosa. “A couple weeks ago, we were talking in Bible study about how things were in Florida and Texas. There's a Scripture that says in the end times, there's going to be fire. That's where we're at. We've damaged his space that's beautiful, that he gave us, and we've just torn it apart.”
Others were more skeptical that climate change played a role. “It was a confluence of all the worst factors,” said Joan Finkle, an innkeeper in Kenwood who was evacuated. “I've lived here my whole life. They always tell us October is the worst.” Superstition was still part of the narrative, though: “I think Mother Nature's pretty mad at us.”
Temperatures soared in the San Francisco Bay Area in early September, hitting 106 degrees Fahrenheit in San Francisco, a new record, and 108 in San Rafael, north of the city. It was the warmest summer in more than 100 years of record keeping, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with UCLA: “It beat the previous record by a pretty wide margin.”
Those high temperatures dried out vegetation throughout the area, he said. While fires are a part of life in California, this one became more destructive because it had so much dry brush and grassland — fed by last winter's rains — to burn.
Powerful winds pushed the flames farther, Swain said. Known locally as the Diablo wind, they're similar to the Santa Ana wind in Southern California, and they reached an unusually high speed of 79 mph Sunday night. Coupled with relatively low humidity, the wind patterns quickly created havoc.
“This is very much a weather-driven fire, but there is definitely a climate component to the overall story, too,” Swain said.
The dead brush and trees were the result not just of this year's hot temperatures, but also of the state's historic drought, which officially ended with the rainfall last winter, said LeRoy Westerling, a management professor at the University of California, Merced's School of Engineering.
Scientists typically hesitate to say any specific event happened because of climate change, Westerling said. Yet, he said, “we know that these events are affected by the weather and the climate and how dry it is. The climate system has been altered by people ... all the weather we're experiencing and what's driving these wildfire events is climate change.”
While this fire devastated part of the San Francisco Bay Area, wildfire is creating growing problems across the West, Westerling said.
“Everywhere, including California, the number of large fires has been increasing, and the area burned in them has been increasing, as well,” he said. Climate models indicate California in years ahead could experience cycles of droughts followed by heavy rains. That could mean more destructive fires, the experts said.
“Even in a really wet year, if you get a hot summer, your vegetation is just a tinderbox,” Swain said.
Californians also have been building homes in areas that not long ago were wildlands, pointed out Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. That needs to change if the state wants to adapt to climate change, he said.
“We have to just assume that these fires are going to be more intense and more frequent,” Elkind said. “We're going to need more defensible space.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.