Climate Change Ushers In Early California Fire Season

Written by Thomas Figg-Hoblyn. Posted in Environment, Land Use

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Published on May 13, 2013 with 8 Comments


By Thomas Figg-Hoblyn

May 13, 2013

California’s wildfire season began early this year as nearly a dozen fires, fueled by record high temperatures and extremely low water levels, broke out across the state during the first week of May.

Several wildfires charred hundreds of acres in Northern California’s wine country, including the 125-acre Yellow Fire in Sonoma County, while numerous wildfires assaulted Southern California including the Springs Fire in Ventura County, charring over 28,000 acres.

“The grass and the brush is probably a month drier than it would normally be this time of the year,” said Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection services. “We’re seeing conditions now statewide that we’d normally see in June.”

Extremely parched conditions, including kindling-dry grass, bone-dry ground, record temperatures and extremely low water levels – have officials on edge as the realities of a changing climate in California take hold.

Stuart Seto of the National Weather Service said temperatures hit a record high for early May reaching 98 degrees, topping a previous high of 94 degrees in 2004.

Normal for the first week of May is about 74 degrees, he said.

During a press conference on May 7, Gov. Jerry Brown said climate change is causing the early fire season, and he warned Californians to get used to it.

“Our climate is changing. The weather is getting more intense,” Brown said.

Brown says the federal government has done little to slow down the buildup of greenhouse gases that scientists say contributes to climate change, and that California has to be prepared for long-term changes.

Brown and his team of scientists and administrators predict climate change will have significant, widespread impacts on California’s economy and environment.

Emphasizing that California’s unique and valuable natural treasures, including hundreds of miles of coastline, forests, agriculture, and a snow-melt-fed fresh water supply, are especially at risk.

Brown has pushed climate change preparedness for years now, and his efforts can be followed on the Golden State’s official website,, where a library of information related to climate change is available to the public.  The site includes comprehensive reports, research, regulations, resources, and details regarding how climate change will affect Californians and what is being done to prepare for climate change calamities.  There is even a Climate Action Plan,= complete with a Climate Action Team.

There’s an easy to follow video series produced by the National Academy of Sciences titled “What is Climate Change: Lines of Evidence” for those who are not convinced that climate change is a reality.

The major threats to California, according to the government, include water shortages, fires, crop losses, rising sea levels, changing landscapes and vulnerable wildlife.

Future climate scenarios for California include less freezing and novel climates. According to an official white paper authored by the California Energy Commission, twenty-first century climate change threatens biodiversity, ecosystems and human welfare.

Californians will see more deserts, less forests and shifts in ecosystems as warmer temperatures infringe upon climates that typically freeze and produce snow such as the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Klamath-Siskiyou.

These changes will result in less annual snowpack, which means less water.

Frank Gehrke, chief surveyor for the Department of Water resources, said California’s snowpack water-content level is at 17 percent off normal this year – an ominous sign of what is to come.

Water supply security and management has become pivotal as climate change is predicted to increase the number and intensity of droughts. Public interest in water rights is expected to clash with county and state regulations regarding water management as legal issues loom and people fight for water.

According to the energy commission’s report, as drinking water becomes scarcer, ocean water levels will rise.

Global greenhouse gas emissions have warmed up the atmosphere, which in turn melts the polar ice-caps and results in higher sea levels.

By 2050, California sea level rise, relative to the 2000 level, is predicted to reach as high as 45 centimeters. By 2100, sea level rises could reach 1.4 meters. Increased sea levels will cause extreme coastal erosion and damage.

Coastal communities including San Francisco, Santa Barbara and San Diego will be particularly vulnerable to cliff erosion, wave destruction, runoff erosion and tsunamis.

This year’s early wildfire season is only a small preview of what is expected to come.

The report depicts a future in California replete with wildfires – big ones.

Prediction models show a future California submerged in red and orange where probable fires will occur, bigger, sooner, and more often than ever before; especially in the Southwest area of the state where record high temperatures and low precipitation will change the climate through desertification.

Drought, water shortages, fire, rising seas, migrating biomes and accelerated extinctions of plants and animals, will change California forever.

Although Brown says California is leading the way with prevention measures to reduce greenhouse gases, he emphasizes that no matter how quickly we cut our climate-polluting emissions, climate impacts will still occur.

According to state officials, California has set a goal to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The Air Resources Board is responsible for implementing the California Solutions Act, known as AB32, in order to meet the 2020 emissions goal. They will be supported by the Climate Action team, which is comprised of executives from many of the state agencies including water, environment, air and resources.

Strategies and measures to combat climate change in California can be found in the Adaption Planning Guide. It includes lowering emissions, energy and water conservation, preparation and research.

The APG provides guidance to support regional and local communities, proactively addressing the unavoidable consequences of climate change.

Specific adaptive strategies include incorporating climate change adaption into local and regional planning and projects; public outreach; urban heat islands that includes an urban forest program; accountability for sea level rise in new developments and preservation of vulnerable shorelines; water recycling; identification and protection of shifting habitats; and fire prevention strategies.

The 68-page report implies a new California, and a new sector of economy as people, machines, engineers and scientists will need to be hired and paid to make these grand adaptations possible.

“It’s going to cost a lot of money,” Brown said.

Thomas Figg-Hoblyn

Thomas Figg-Hoblyn

Thomas Figg-Hoblyn joined the journalism world several years ago as a writer and editor – migrating over from the business realm. He currently writes for The Western Edition in San Francisco, the Guardsman at City College of San Francisco, and he was the editor for Etc. Magazine. Figg-Hoblyn is graduating from City College this May with an associate’s degree in journalism, and will attend San Francisco State University’s journalism program beginning in August. As a fourth generation Californian, born and raised in the Bay Area, he brings an abundance of local perspective. Human interest feature profiles are his strong point. The subjects of his printed articles include Warren Hellman, Michael Franti of Spearhead, and Harry Cordellos – world famous blind athlete. Favorite quote: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” -Confucius

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