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Environment, Energy and Transportation

As Californians Deal With Heat, Lightning, Fire, Scientists Point To Climate Change

Fire retardant drop- Nixon CapRadio.jpg
Andrew Nixon
/
CapRadio
A CalFire plane drops fire retardant on the Jones Fire near Nevada City, Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

Almost every part of California is sweltering right now because of the heatwave, rolling blackouts, hundreds of lightning strikes, and wildfires forcing thousands to evacuate all on top of the pandemic.

In Sacramento, the heat is forecast to peak at 112 degrees by Wednesday and a wildfire destroyed four homes near Nevada City. But near 100-degree temperatures are here for a while.

Eric Robins, 28, who lives with his mom and step-father a quarter-mile away from the mandatory evacuation lines of the Jones Fire in Nevada County, decided to leave home when the air quality got so bad that it was hard to breathe. They joined nearly 4,000 people who evacuated the area after seeing a warning evacuation tweet.

“As soon as the warning came through, I ran upstairs and showed my family the tweet and we just started throwing everything together and getting it into our cars,” he said. “Twenty minutes later we were out.”

The family lives in a cul-de-sac, and Robins said it would be difficult to escape if a fire came through.

“I was like, ‘Oh, s**t’ as I'm looking around in my room trying to decide which mementos to throw into my bag,” he said. “In the worst-case scenario it's all burning down.”

Robins, who works for an environmental non-profit that aims to restore the Yuba River, says four of his colleagues and three of his friends were evacuated as well. He is staying with his father about 15 minutes away.

“There's a bit of an odd sense of communal panic to it,” he said. “We're all on Slack ... and all of a sudden, three or four of us are just like getting out the door.”

The Jones Fire is one of many burning across California — images of burning Joshua trees show parts of a 42,000-acre fire burning in the Mojave Desert and a new round of evacuation orders are in place for residents in Butte, Napa and Sonoma counties.

What Caused This?
But it’s not just wildfires that are plaguing the state right now. As a result of triple-digit heat — Death Valley reached 130 degrees, perhaps the hottest temperature recorded there — and Californians went through rolling blackouts.

The hot and sometimes humid conditions are the result of a few things: a high-pressure system circling above the state warming up inland areas, a tropical storm off the coast of Mexico giving storms moisture, a nearly statewide thunderstorm that produced hundreds of lightning strikes and a fire formed tornado touched down near the Sierra Nevada community of Loyalton.

The heatwave is expected to continue until Thursday, but then it’s supposed to heat up again early next week, according to Michelle Mead, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

“We are watching to see if those temperatures climb back up into the mid-100s, 105 to 110,” she said, adding that the rising nighttime temperatures will likely limit the Delta Breeze that cools the Sacramento region in the evening.

She says that if the Sacramento area continues to stay above the 100-degree mark this weekend it will be the longest heatwave on record. The last time the region went through something similar was in 2006 when a heat wave lasted 11 days.

“We've had almost double the amount of 100 degree days this summer than we did last summer,” she said. “In May we had that early heatwave, and then June was above normal, and now we've got this. So, it's just been an unfortunate summer.”

She blames a very dry winter that produced a meager snowpack and she says that allows “everything to heat up quicker and unfortunately, the fuels to dry out faster.”

"It's Exhausting"
The heatwave, the fires and weather patterns are in part related to climate change, says UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, because warming temperatures are “with great certainty” increasing these conditions.

“This whole event started as a record-breaking heat wave … and we also know that climate change is increasing the severity and the acres burned by wildfires in California.”

What Swain finds interesting is that wildfires are not just happening in forested areas, but in communities and lowland areas.

“We're sort of in phase one of wildfire season, which is the hot, dry and kind of stagnant time of the summer,” he said. “The more dynamic part of fire season where we get these strong winds that push fires quickly all the way to the coast. That is yet to come.”

Swain is concerned that fire season could last into late October or even November, because of a record dry winter and spring in a lot of Northern California and the heatwave baking much of the entire state.

“Unfortunately in California, there's not a lot of great news in terms of the sort of medium-range seasonal outlook,” he said. “September and October both look significantly warmer than average, and most likely drier than average. So we will probably see a full extension of fire season at least through October this year.”

With all these factors, and then the pandemic, Swain says 2020 has turned into a killjoy.

“It's exhausting … it really does feel like it's one hit after another in 2020,” he said. “I am concerned about the fact that we have this ongoing heatwave, we're going to have really bad air quality throughout a lot of California now for quite some time due to the wildfire smoke and heat. I'm kind of at a loss for words.”

Copyright 2020 CapRadio