California Wildfires Stoke Need to Concentrate on Climate Change, Public Health

California Wildfires Stoke Need to Concentrate on Climate Change, Public Health

Northern California has been battling wildfires since early October, which have burned  almost 250,000 acres, killed 42 people, displaced 100,000 residents, and destroyed thousands of homes. The hardest-hit areas have been Napa and Sonoma counties, the epicenter of the U.S. wine industry, and Santa Rosa, a town of 175,000 50 miles north of San Francisco. As many as 11,000 firefighters worked to combat the flames, including 6,000 volunteer inmate firefighters. With wildfire threats shifting to southern California as temperatures climb and the dry Santa Ana winds pick up, Californians are taking a hard look at what happened and how to better protect local communities.

The wildfires in the northern areas of the state disrupted residents’ food and water supplies and health-care systems. Fire and smoke taint water sources—which led California to issue a “boil water” notice—and can affect bottled or canned food. Several health-care facilities burned down or had to be evacuated. Those developments also meant loss of vital medications, “and pharmacies in the [affected] areas are struggling to fill prescriptions, especially for respiratory illnesses,” said Dr. Linda Rudolph during a recent press briefing for state policymakers organized by Climate Nexus, a nonprofit science literacy organization. Rudolph directs the Center for Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute in Oakland. Skilled nursing facilities were also adversely affected since senior citizens are often too infirm to mobilize on such short notice.

Meanwhile, the intensity of the infernos did not surprise LeRoy Westerling, a University of California Merced management professor who co-directs the Center for Climate Communication, and has studied factors that make California so susceptible to wildfires. According to Westerling, the wet winter of 2016 following years of drought and dry coastal climates created perfect conditions for a fire of this magnitude. Plants grew rapidly after the heavy rainfall. The summer of 2017 was also one of the hottest on record, which further dried up all the vegetation and brush that had grown during the winter, creating the perfect  conditions for wildfires. “It’s usually pretty dry this time of year, and given the proximity to lots of population centers, there’s lots of human fire ignitions,” said Westerling during the briefing. “When you combine all of those together, it’s kind of a peak opportunity time in October for some of these big fires to occur,” he added. Other factors, such as dead plant debris from years of drought, provided “standing dead fuel” for the fires to surge. The summer of 2017 was also one of the hottest on record, which further dried up all the vegetation and brush that had grown during the winter.

To respond to the increased fire risks, Bill Stewart, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension Specialist, noted that California is developing a “vegetation treatment plan” that will require studying fire risk reduction techniques, weighing public health concerns, and monitoring wildlife and ecosystems, including endangered species habitats. Stewart also believes that California environmental officials should reconsider the kind of vegetation planted near population centers. Certain plants are more susceptible to fire than others, such as grassland, which easily dry out in summer.

Decades of other incremental changes in the climate helped create an environment that makes fires more intense, Westerling said. Because of warmer temperatures in recent years, soil and trees have retained much less moisture. These conditions, spurred by “diablo winds” and fluctuating temperatures between coastal and inland climates, also helped the fires spread even farther. (Diablo winds refer to hot, dry winds in the San Francisco Bay area that blow from the interior of the state to the coastline.)

California state legislators and energy officials are also working on statewide climate assessments. These studies explore the long- and short-term effects of climate events, performing simulations of both average and extreme events, such as the current fires. The state is also focusing on fuel management, population growth scenarios, and ecological development footprint scenarios, all of which influence climate patterns. In addition, the University of California is funding a multi-year project to compare climate change and public health concerns, and create projections that would help inform the state’s decision-making in the next decade.