Kyle Grillot/The New York Times

November 11, 2019

Living in the Era of California Wildfires: New York State Climatologist and Cornell Professor Weigh in on West Coast Destruction

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Hundreds of structures have been destroyed, thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate and abandon their homes and firefighters continue to risk their lives to fight several catastrophic fires burning across California.

As the fires continue, a large debate regarding the causes and prevention of this destructive phenomenon has climatologists and environmentalists seeking answers. Four Cornell specialists and a New York State climatologist weighed in on the West Coast destruction.

According to Prof. Peter Hess, biological and environmental engineering, California is often struck by wildfires due to its climate. With higher temperatures, strong winds and low humidity, it is fairly easy for these fires to erupt quickly.

“California often hosts the conditions that are ripe for major fires, beginning with winter rains that spur plant growth followed by extended drought conditions that turn them into fuel. Add the high wind conditions associated with topographic relief, then conditions are ideal for the initiation and rapid spread of wildfire,” Prof. Larry Douglas Brown, earth and atmospheric sciences, said.

In Northern California, the Kincade fire burnt around 78 thousand acres in Sonoma County.

There are also many smaller fires burning throughout the state as well.

In Southern Los Angeles, the Hill Fire has burned 630 acres. Nearby in LA, the 49 fire has burnt 300 acres. More east in San Bernardino, the Hillside fire burned about 200 acres. The Easy fire in Simi Valley, now more than 95% contained, has burned around 1,800 acres. The Getty fire started burning last Monday in Los Angeles County and has since burned around 750 acres. The Maria fire in Ventura County began to burn Thursday night and has since spread to an 8,000-acre area, prompting mandatory evacuations for 7,500 people.

The cause of the Maria fire is unknown, but the Southern California Edison Power Company may be responsible.

On October 10th, California Governor Gavin Newsom was quoted as saying with respect to the power company PG&E that, this is “not a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades.”

Edison told regulators on Friday, November first that the company had reenergized a 16,000-volt power line just 13 minutes before the fire began to burn. Edison turned off all power lines earlier that day due to aggressive Santa Ana winds.

According to Mark Wysocki, a New York State climatologist, the unique Santa Ana winds have always been a contributor to California wildfires, as these strong winds blow flames to other highly flammable brush, often making it difficult to contain the fire before it’s too late.

“The weather pattern needed for the winds to develop is a surface high pressure over southern Nevada and a surface low over Arizona. As the air descends, it will be compressed and warmed, so the air heats up descending on the western side of the Rockies and more warming as the air descends on the western side of the Santa Ana mountains,” Wysocki said.

These winds, characterized by high speeds and low humidity, are also called “Diablo winds,” Prof. Susan Riha, earth and environmental sciences, said.

Riha moved to San Diego after her retirement and has faced power outages in her neighborhood. According to Riha, when strong winds hit California, utility companies often cut power in residential neighborhoods to reduce the threat of sparking a wildfire.

“This month, an estimated 2.7 million people lost power in northern California due to PG&E’s preemptive power shutoff on October eighth and again on October twenty-forth. There were also preemptive power shutoffs in the L.A. and San Diego areas,” Riha said.

In a single week alone, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison cut the power of tens of thousands of homes.

“Although the California utility companies are not the major cause of wildfires in California, their electric grid is most likely to cause fires during high, dry winds, and under these conditions, wildfires can spread extremely rapidly and be very difficult to control and hence are generally the most damaging,” Riha said.

According to Riha, turning off the power in densely-populated urban areas, such as Los Angeles, can actually negatively affect the wildfire situation.

“Shutting off power to millions of people has significant economic and human health consequences [and] has generated two areas of concern,” Riha said.

“The first is whether the utilities are doing enough to reduce the possibility that their systems will cause wildfires, while minimizing power shut offs. Secondly, the power companies may be overreacting in preemptively cutting power in order to reduce their exposure to liabilities,” Riha said.

Beyond the roles of power companies and Santa Ana winds, debate remains on climate change’s role in contributing to these fires.

“The current wildfires in California  are certainly consistent with the expectations of a warming climate leading to increasing drought conditions in the western U.S.,” Brown said.

“In California, there is a strong element of climate change, but much of the problem also stems from land use, such as people building houses in ecosystems that traditionally burn regularly in the chaparral ecosystem of Los Angeles County,” Prof. Natalie M. Mahowald, earth and environmental sciences, said.

Brown said that as temperatures rise and development continues, taxing the power grid, he expects wildfires to become even more common.

“Some experts have argued that recent increases in the burn area for at least summer fires in California are already statistically significant evidence for the impact of climate warming now,” Brown said.

When living in California, there are appropriate measures to be taken when wildfires strike.

“Reduce the chance for fires to start.  If you are in the dry, hot and windy conditions then no campfires, no barbecues and be careful how you dispose of smoking materials. Don’t plant bushes, flowers, or trees near your house,” Wysocki said.

Also, always be sure to cooperate with the authorities when making the decision when to evacuate. Mandatory evacuations are put in place for a reason. There is a potential for death or injury if you don’t get out in time.

“When there is a hint of fire, get out!  Wildfires are called “wild” for a reason.  They travel fast and burn hot,” Wysocki said.