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Wildfire

Megafires Are Breaking Climate Models, Highlighting California's Need To Focus On Prevention

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Wildfires are burning year-after-year in wine country and the Sierra. These megafires are creating a new baseline for climate scientists to include in modeling and point to a greater need: a shift in mood from fire suppression to prevention.

Michael Jones was up the entire night Sunday watching the Glass Fire take off in Napa and Sonoma counties. At more than 42,000 acres Tuesday it’s damaged at least eight wineries, 80 other homes and businesses and forced tens of thousands to flee.

“It's blown into Santa Rosa — it's not super surprising that we're in the same boat again,” said Jones, a forestry advisor for the UC system in Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties.

The fire is wedged between where the 2017 Tubbs Fire — which in 2017 was the most destructive fire in California history — and Nuns Fire burned, and Jones says it’s sort of Mother Nature hitting equilibrium.

“It's actually burning in a strip of the coastal range that hasn't burned in recorded history,” Jones said.

The Glass Fire erupted a week into autumn — a time climate scientists have forecast is going to become increasingly ripe for wildfires. With the state’s largest fire in recorded history still burning these big blazes are breaking researchers’ models around fire and climate change. This is giving them even better insight into how to better forecast the potential size of future fires.

But they say the scale and ferocity of the fires is also pointing to something needed more than ever: a cultural swap of ideals from putting fires out to prevention, which includes good fire on the land.

Jones hopes the 2020 fire season is enough of a wake-up call for California to engage existing knowledge that can both bring fire back on the landscape and protect human life, because he says the way the state is dealing with fires is not sustainable.

“We just can't keep going this route,” he said. “We're going to have to have a fundamental reevaluation of how we handle fire because … when we try to prevent it from burning we seem to make things worse.”

This Fire Season Is Advancing Climate Science

The pace and scale of fires this year are also reshaping how scientists predict how extreme climate change effects will be. It’s doing this by establishing a new baseline for the largest fires in current history, says Leroy Westerling, a UC Merced expert on wildfires and the weather that drives them.

He says just look at the August Complex, the largest wildfire in California history, which has burned more than 900,000 acres of the coastal range in more than 40 days.

“That's nearly three times the size of the largest fire we were allowing in our simulations,” Westerling explained of potential scenarios he and his team modeled in the past.

As a result, Westerling — a Mariposa County resident who is daily reminded of the growing effects of climate from the smoke of the Creek Fire burning east of Fresno — says these megablazes are teaching scientists to factor in even larger fires into future models. He also says the nearly 12,000 August lightning strikes that caused hundreds of fires are guiding him to include more variability from lightning in his modeling.

Like the bolts that started fires that are still burning in the state, Westerling is considering including dry lightning strike scenarios into his process of modeling what the future of the state will look like. He says doing so could prove vital because he is helping create the state’s fifth climate assessment. The last assessment, released in 2018, was based on 100 million maps of the state's fire seasons, but Westerling says the new one will be based on tens of billions.

“By building lightning strike scenarios into a map, we're not predicting that a particular year’s going to have a lot of lightning, but we can say given the climate this is what is projected for that year,” he said.The fires exploding in the coastal range have also helped solidify data and results UC Davis researchers were already analyzing. By looking at satellite imagery from 1984 to 2017 they found that wildfires in California’s coastal range are getting significantly worse. The fires this summer and now fall furthered their hypothesis that the severity of fires in the coastal range is worsening.

They found that large-scale wildfires in the northern part of the coastal range, like the LNU Lightning Complex, have increased at about 10% per decade since 1984 due to climate trends that make it easy for wildfires to spark.

“The fire size has been increasing significantly — the mean fire size almost doubled if you compare the recent drought period with previous relatively cooler drought — and the severity of burns also were amplified,” said Yufang Jin, associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources.

Every innovation in modeling or discovering new data is important because with just one degree of warming California is already experiencing some of the worst wildfires in history.

“We expect future fire risks to continue at the current pace, because a lot of our climate models projections have the same conclusions,” Jin explained. “We'll be seeing a warmer climate in the future.”

California Needs A Cultural Mind Shift

This new baseline of information is part of why Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a UC system fire advisor in Humboldt county, says it’s no longer time to debate “base-level conversations” over whether prevention tactics like prescribed burns are beneficial.

“We need to think about what are the values that we want to preserve moving forward,” she said.

California will arrive at the conclusion, she says, by leaning on the hundreds if not thousands of experts already living in the state who hold knowledge of how to prevent megafires. This is important because so many people who are currently impacted by wildfires live in rural areas and are low-income.

“I've been thinking a lot about my hometown in Trinity County where my mom still lives,” she said. “My heart is kind of breaking for a lot of people who are losing their homes. They've spent 40 years hand-building their homes … and they're seeing their whole landscape change.”

But she says this also will take a mindset change about living with fire even for them. It also means a move from suppressing fires to preventing them by allowing seemingly small solutions — like cultural burning at five or 10 acres a year — to morph into mainline remedies.

“We're at a point where it's all hands on deck, including communities and some of those small bite-sized solutions that we're seeing popping up around the state are actually going to be the solution that communities are going to have to get more involved,” she said.

These small solutions are everything from Native American cultural burns to homeowners hardening their homes to private landowners burning their own land through prescribed fire. She says all these little advances peppered across the state will need to be paired with funding and policy change at the federal and state level.

“We focus mainly on this kind of triage attitude when fire season happens — we're always going to need fire suppression resources to put out fires during fire season — but the rest of the year there's a huge opportunity to be doing good work and preparing,” she said.

And at around 4 million acres burned this year, Quinn-Davidson says there’s momentum to have even more policy changes before fire season is even over.

“We need to have people empowered to get more involved in this work … and to make this part of California's culture and daily conversation,” she said.

'We Don't Want Our Communities To Burn'

Quinn-Davidson says people are hungry for real solutions because lives and livelihoods are disappearing. But for our reality to change she says all Californians, including the governor, need to demand a cultural change around suppressing wildfires.

“We don’t want our communities to burn up and we don't want people to die in wildfires every summer,” she explains. “If we can focus on that shared vision across the board then let's think about the strategic use of the tools that we have available to us in order to to meet those objectives.”

One way for this to happen is through even more collaboration across private, state and federal land. In August the federal government agreed to clean up 1 million acres of forest and to create a 20-year plan for thinning and burning forests.

Secondly, Quinn-Daviddson says California needs to think about the fires that are already burning and figure out how to take advantage of the fact that they are burned and can be maintained in a way that will prevent catastrophic future fires.

“I'm having some really interesting conversations with legislators and colleagues and we're all trying to articulate what we think that the next steps are. Where are the best places we can put our energy and our resources to make a difference?”

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