Just Another Abnormal Fire Season in California

Adam Hodges
Nov 18, 2018 · 6 min read

It’s often said that you don’t realize what you have until you lose it. For over a week now, those of us living in the Bay Area have been forced to grapple with losing that one thing we all rely upon to live healthy and productive lives: air.

As you know from news reports, a devastating fire — ironically named the Camp Fire — wiped out the town of Paradise at the foot of the Sierras in Northern California, claiming over 70 lives with over a thousand people still unaccounted for as of this morning.

Smoke from the fire has combined with a high-pressure system sitting off the coast and cooler surface temperatures as we head toward winter. This has effectively created a lid that has trapped smoke from the fire over much of Northern California. Bad air quality in the Bay Area has resulted in numerous school and business closures this week since it is unhealthy to venture outside, let alone exercise outside.

The pool I coach at has been closed. The triathlon team I coach has canceled workouts. Hiking in the mountains beneath the redwoods — which typically act like lungs to provide us with clean air — is impossible. Walking downtown to go the grocery store shouldn’t be done without an N95 respirator mask. In the past few days, the air quality index has moved above 200 into the purple “very unhealthy” zone where “everyone may experience more serious health effects.” Headaches, sore throats, coughs, phlegm in the lungs. But, of course, young kids, the elderly and those with conditions like asthma are impacted the most.

There’s an eerie feel as we look out our windows at the world we can no longer venture into to run and walk and play. The hazy smoke conjures up images from a novel by Dickens or — for those who remember the movie The Day After in the 1980s — the image of a nuclear winter.

It’s easy to take things like the air we breathe for granted. Like fish swimming in water, we expect it to always be there — until one day it’s not. We then find ourselves, like a fish thrust onto land, struggling to breath and sustain life.

The air quality index map from the EPA’s website, airnow.gov, on Thursday, November 15.

The Camp Fire is both the most destructive and the deadliest fire in California’s history. The largest fire was the Mendocino Complex Fire that occurred this past July, closing off Yosemite while it burned near the park. Up to that point, the largest fire in California’s history was the Thomas Fire that occurred last December near Santa Barbara. And before this year’s Camp Fire, the most destructive fire in California’s history was the Tubbs Fire in October of last year.

The pattern should be clear to see even if we might prefer to ignore it. Fires have always occurred in California. But fires are increasing in frequency and intensity, and they now occur well beyond the traditional fire season.

There are many reasons for this pattern, but climate change is a key underlying factor. The science tells us that our climate is shifting in ways that may seem subtle, but have undeniable impacts. The start of the rainy season each fall has become more delayed. Higher temperatures during the summer dry out vegetation, leaving it more vulnerable for longer periods of time until the winter rains and snow arrive. Under these conditions, it doesn’t take much to ignite deadly fires like those we’re currently experiencing — a downed power line, a spark from a car.

Let’s be clear. Although climate change does not directly cause any single fire, the changing climate sets the conditions that make devastating fires more likely and more frequent, and extends the fire season beyond the normal range. The same applies to the frequency and intensity of storms and hurricanes. This is truly the “new abnormal.” The trend will only worsen over the rest of this century unless we take collective action to address climate change.

This past spring, I taught a writing seminar on climate change to students at Carnegie Mellon University Qatar. This allowed me to return to a topic I first began to study as an environmental biology major at the University of Colorado in the 1990s. Since my undergraduate studies, the scientific consensus on climate change has only grown stronger while public understanding has weakened. But climate change is no longer something we will experience in the future. We are experiencing its effects right now.

In the seminar, we explored the current science, the public debates, and worked to move the conversation toward effective solutions. I created this video below to summarize many of the ideas we covered and to share my own personal experiences with climate change.

I have been fortunate to spend time in many mountain ranges around the world, and during my travels I have seen first-hand how climate change has impacted glaciers in the Alps, Himalayas, and Cascades. In my home state of Colorado, remaining glaciers in the Indian Peaks Wilderness — one of the most special places in the world to me — are declining. One of those glaciers is Arikaree Glacier, part of the City of Boulder watershed. Researchers have documented that “Arikaree Glacier — likely more than 1,000 years old — has been thinning by about 1 meter a year over the past 15 years and will disappear completely in 25 years.”

In the video, I also take you to the Alps to look at the shrinking Mer de Glace, one of the massive glaciers on the Mont Blanc massif — another very special place to me. Glaciers are the source of drinking water for countless population centers around the world. Like the air breathe, we often take our drinking water for granted — until it’s no longer there.

“Climate change is a problem because too few of us consider it one,” write the economists Gernot Wager and Martin Weitzman. “And those of us who do consider it a problem, or worse, can do little about it unless we get everyone else to act. Either we solve this problem for everyone, or we solve it for none of us.” These two economists sum up our dilemma pretty well.

But the good news is that we have the solutions to solve the climate crisis. We are on the cusp of transforming our dependency on dirty fossil fuels to a new energy economy based on clean, renewable sources. We can actually create a better world for all of us through solutions that deal with climate change — creating jobs, ensuring clean air, advancing well-being, and improving our quality of life.

But we must act collectively — and we must act now because the negative consequences (financial, economic, health, environmental) will only worsen if we continue to kick the proverbial can down the road. This means shifting the conversation toward a productive discussion of solutions — and supporting leaders and policies that bring those solutions to fruition.

A carbon tax, for example, could help substantially curb greenhouse gas emissions while creating an equitable transition for consumers (such as through a rebate program). And a carbon tax has widespread support across the political spectrum, including prominent advocates such as George Schultz, James Baker, Trent Lott, Janet Yellen…plus a majority of Americans.

So, as Thanksgiving nears, please take a moment to think about the things you are grateful for that we often take for granted. I am grateful to live in a beautiful place where I can normally be active outside and breathe clean air. But we can only continue to maintain a good quality of life — for us and future generations — if we protect our natural resources and tackle climate change collectively.

Thanks for reading. Please share and watch the video below to learn more about the global challenge we face and how to move forward from here.

What does a world-record space jump have in common with global climate change? Find out in this video.

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