By Kieran Cooke
Wildfires used to hit California only in the latter part of the year, but changing climate and persistent drought mean they are now a constant threat.
CLEAR LAKE, California – The blackened tree stumps stand out against a clear blue sky. The land is burned, and there is a smell of charcoal and ash in the air. People in this area are used to wildfires, but as California and much of the western US endures its fifth year of severe drought, residents are wondering when there will be any respite from the flames and smoke. Mike Mohler, a battalion chief with the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, says that although there was substantial rainfall in northern California earlier this year, those five drought years mean there is no moisture in the vegetation. “When we get these fires now, we are seeing what we call explosive fire growth,” Mohler told the NPR radio network. “And now the explosive fire growth statewide is unfortunately the new normal. We’re seeing fire conditions that are unprecedented. In my 22 years [in the fire service], I haven’t seen fire move like I have this year.”
Wildfires spreading quickly
So far this year there have been more than 4,000 wildfires in California, with well over 300,000 acres of land burned, forestry officials say. The US Forest Service estimates that nearly 70 million trees have died in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains over the last five years. Changes in climate, including above-average temperatures and prolonged drought, have created tinderbox conditions, with wildfires spreading quickly. Widespread infestations of bark beetles, which attack pine trees weakened by successive years of drought, are another significant factor in the destruction of the state’s luxuriant forests. Studies say California is among the US states hardest hit by climate change and needs to adapt its economy and way of living in order to cope with prolonged droughts and rising temperatures.Late last month, the state’s legislature – against strong opposition from many corporations and businesses – brought in a bill requiring a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over 1990 levels by 2030. Jerry Brown, California’s governor, said the state is charting a clear course on climate, and attacked what he called “the brazen deception of the oil lobby and their Trump-inspired allies who deny science and fight every reasonable effort to curb global warming”. Although California is seen as a leader in the US in the fight to combat climate change, environmentalists and scientists feel it needs to do far more to preserve its dwindling water resources in the face of the continuing drought.
Snow levels decreasing
Research published last year, analysing tree rings, showed that California’s Central Valley had not been as dry for 500 years. The level of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains – which usually supplies 30% of the state’s water – has been decreasing in recent years. And reservoirs throughout the state are at a record low. In some areas, water tables have dropped by 50 feet as more and more wells are drilled. In 2014, restrictions on the use of groundwater − mainly applying to urban areas − were brought in. California’s farmers, who make up a powerful lobby group in what is seen as the agricultural powerhouse of the US, have escaped most of the new laws. Despite the continuing drought, the state remains a major producer of thirsty crops such as almonds, tomatoes and oranges.