It’s hard to think about anything other than the fires right now, especially the one north of us in Butte County. The devastation and loss of life are horrific. And due to a strange weather pattern called ‘inversion,’ the smoke is just hanging in the atmosphere. Our local air has been in the ‘unhealthy’ or ‘very unhealthy’ range for a week now. I’ve read reports that it’s like smoking a half a pack a day. We all feel it - sore throats, weepy eyes, chest congestion, coughing, runny noses. All the local schools have been cancelled, and people walk around with masks on. I bought my first case of masks (N95) to have here at the house, since smoky conditions seem to be getting more common in California.
I work one day a week at my school as an intern. I’ve mostly been doing transplanting of all the cuttings that other students start in propagation classes. They need to be looked after, because they will be put out for our spring plant sale. Some have been quite interesting to work on, like sugar cane (a story for another time). I work with a young woman who is a fairly recent immigrant from China. Her work ethic astounds me - she has an art history degree from UC Berkeley, but she isn’t having any luck finding a job in that field, so she is working full time at the San Francisco airport, plus taking classes in Horticulture at Merritt, plus doing this internship. She even helps support her family and is still somehow cheerful and happy at work. I have to say, this so-called ‘laziness’ that people talk about with millennials? I just don’t see it. What I do see is young people working hard in a ‘gig’ economy, trying to make ends meet. Tom sees that same ethic in his students at City College. These young people do not have the same advantages we had and work harder than we did.
I digress. What I wanted to say was that this young woman I work with has lots of questions. It’s always very interesting to see what she’ll ask me next. Sometimes she asks me about American holidays and how we celebrate them (she’s cooking a turkey this year for Thanksgiving and is so excited!). We’ve talked about the ‘Green Revolution,’ and how to bring up children, and the difference in education in China and America. Yesterday we talked about the fire a lot, as the greenhouse in which we were working was filled with smoke and it was hard to breathe and concentrate (school was finally cancelled in the middle of my class today). And she asked me, what causes these huge fires? Is it really just because the forest hasn’t been thinned out enough? In other words, is Trump right and it’s all about managing forests?
What a great question, and you know what I admire? Someone who isn’t afraid to ask questions. I love that. I wish we were all better about being curious and willing to be taught. None of us knows everything. I do believe that if our government (both sides) was more willing to ask questions, we might actually get somewhere. I am so guilty of this too. Someone in my family expressed a view I didn’t agree with right before the election, and instead of asking why they felt that way, I just shut down the conversation. I regret that. It’s just my own fear getting in the way.
Ok, that was another digression, sorry. My co-worker’s question opened up a really interesting conversation which made us explore all the reasons that these fires become as destructive as they do. And I thought I’d share it with you, because there is a lot of false information out there. We probably didn’t think of everything, so if you have something to add, please share it in the comments.
Perhaps the most important issue is where people are choosing to live. More and more folks are moving to the Urban Wildland Interface, which is a zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development. The US Forest Service defines it as a place where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” Right off the bat, you can see where this could be a huge problem. These areas are basically wild, and as such, have their growth controlled by fire. Fire is a natural thing for these forests, and it is what has kept them in check for millions of years. With people now living in these areas, fire is not allowed to come through as it normally would, and that causes brush and dead material to build up. These communities are often built with one road going in and out, to minimize disturbance from more people. Living in the woods sounds like an excellent proposition, but when you realize that it’s all combustible fuel combined with choked transport roads, it’s a disaster.
The next consideration is climate change. Due to just a slight elevation in daytime (and nighttime) temperatures, plants behave differently. You may remember from your high school biology that plants transpire - that is, lose water from their leaves. Water is pulled up from the soil, in to the roots of the plant, and then throughout the plant, and then out through the stoma (small openings on the underside of leaves) and into the air. Transpiration is what drives the water cycle through the entire plant. More heat = more transpiration. All this vegetation is extremely dry to begin with, this time of year, and the rise in temperature is making it even drier.
Also due to climate change, our rainy ‘season’ is compressing. Where we used to get rain from November to April, now we get rain in January and February (or at least most of it). That means the soil is saturated from this quick deluge, and a lot of water runs off rather than soaking in and making a difference later in the year, when the plant really needs it (those higher temperatures again).
Another factor is wind. When the mountains to the east of us (the Sierra Nevada) begin to cool down in the fall, they are cooling faster than our coast, and that acts as a sort of vacuum and causes air from east of the ranges to blow very hot and fast towards our coast. These are called the Diablo winds in Northern California, and the Santa Ana winds in Southern California. Wind was certainly a part of this fire event, with gusts up to 70 miles an hour on our peaks for days on end.
Something that is very strange about this event is that it happened this late in the year. We’ve still had hot days, yes, but our nights have gotten very cool, in many cases down in to the 30’s. This usually suppresses fire. But our plants and trees are SO dry after a very hot summer, and our rain is so late, and the wind was so gusty, that the cool temperatures aren’t making a difference this time. It’s particularly hard on the thousands and thousands of folks that have lost their homes, because they are sleeping in tents and cars. It is also strange to be cold and smoky here in the Bay Area. We are used to being hot and smoky. So, as I heard a climate scientist say on the news this morning, there is no ‘normal.’ You can’t even call it the ‘new’ normal because it could all change in an instant.
Forest management is certainly an issue, though as we have seen, it is not the only issue. According to the US Forest Service: “Federal lands comprise the vast majority of the 5.9 million acres of reserved forest lands” in California (link HERE). So that leads one to believe that much of the mismanagement of forests is actually not due to our state laws or restrictions, but to federal authorities. Not pointing fingers. There has been quite a bit of environmental messiness in our state, and so it’s confusing to figure out who to blame. Let’s just say there is plenty of blame to go around, and it may not be useful to look at it that way; rather, it would be helpful to start now and look ahead to what may come, and how best to prepare for that.
Tom and I talk a lot about our retirement and where we want to live. Both the likelihood of big fire events and predicted sea level rise have us re-thinking locations, not to mention that the South is getting ever-hotter and the West is getting ever-drier. That means a house on the coast is out, as is a house in the deep woods. And meanwhile, our current little house here in Walnut Creek needs to be as prepared as possible.
For information on how to help the fire victims, please go to THIS page.