Scientist Daniel Swain on “Unprecedented Climate Conditions” Contributing to Deadly CA Wildfires

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In California, at least 40 people have died, hundreds are missing, and thousands of homes have been destroyed by uncontrollable wildfires. More than 11,000 firefighters are battling the wildfires, with the support of hundreds of fire engines and dozens of helicopters and airplanes. Many of the firefighters are prisoners, who are working for as little as $1 a day. Among the victims of the wildfires were elderly residents of Sonoma County, where authorities say their bodies were so charred, the only way to identify some of them was by the serial numbers on artificial joints or other medical devices. We speak with Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and author of Weather West, the California Weather Blog.

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Video squareStoryOct 11, 2017As Deadly Wildfires Rage in California, a Look at How Global Warming Fuels Decades of Forest Fires
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AMY GOODMAN: “Inferno” by Ivan Karamazov, a musician from Sonoma County who sent us that song from Northern California. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we go to California, where raging wildfires fueled by—fires have raged at least—have killed at least 40 people, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and scorched more than 200,000 acres—roughly the size of New York City. The fires are now the deadliest in California since record keeping began. At least 100,000 people have been forced to evacuate, with about 75,000 still displaced. Some residents had to flee for their lives as drought conditions and powerful, erratic winds have contributed to the explosive spread of fires. This is Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott.

FIRE CHIEF KEN PIMLOTT: We are still impacted by five years of drought. With the significant rain that we had last winter, those effects are gone of that moisture, and we are literally looking at explosive vegetation. These fires are burning actively during the day and at night, when one would expect a fire to subside. And make no mistake: This is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 11,000 firefighters are battling the wildfires, with the support of hundreds of fire engines, dozens of helicopters and planes. Many of the firefighters are prisoners, who are working for as little as a dollar a day. Among the victims of the wildfires were elderly residents of Sonoma County, where authorities say their bodies were so charred, the only way to identify some of them was by the serial numbers on artificial joints or other medical devices. The fires have also contributed to a housing crisis, leaving thousands homeless in neighborhoods of California where rental prices were already sky-high before the blazes.

For more, we go to California, where we’re joined by two guests. In Los Angeles, Daniel Swain joins us, climate scientist at UCLA, author of Weather West, the California Weather Blog. And via Democracy Now! video stream, we’re joined by Jan Hoyman, an artist who had to flee her home to escape the fire in Mendocino County last week.

Let’s go right now to Los Angeles, where we’re joined by Daniel Swain. Talk about the fires and whether you believe there’s a connection to climate change.

DANIEL SWAIN: Well, thanks for having me.

The scope of the wildfires that we’ve been seeing over the past week or so in Northern California is really kind of sobering. As you mentioned, I think these fires have the highest death toll and the highest number of structures burned of any series of fires in California history. And California does have a long history of deadly and destructive wildfires. And the fires we’ve seen this week have—bear some similarities to the historical fires that have caused big problems in the past, which is the presence of these very strong and dry land-to-sea winds, known locally as the Diablo winds. And when these winds blow—the autumn tends to be the time of year when they occur—they can cause existing fires to spread very, very quickly—in some cases, I think, faster than people have been able to outrun them, unfortunately.

And the climate conditions over the past several months in California have been, in some ways, unprecedented. California has experienced its record warmest summer, which comes immediately on the heels of what was quite a wet winter, actually. And counterintuitively, that sequence, that transition from very wet winter to record hot summer, may have actually contributed, to a significant degree, to the fire risks that we’ve been seeing, by increasing the amount of grass and dry brush that grew during the winter and spring, and then leading to an unprecedented amount of vegetation drying over the past several months.

AMY GOODMAN: There are also wildfires raging in Spain and Portugal. What is the connection?

DANIEL SWAIN: Well, one of the interesting things about all these locations is they tend to have similar climates. They have what are known as Mediterranean climates. And from a fire perspective, that’s important because these regions tend to have long, dry summers, even under natural climate conditions. The challenging part is that, recently, those summers have become longer and drier. And the fire season in many of these parts of the world, that were already susceptible to wildfire, are experiencing longer burning seasons and hotter, drier summers.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how wildfires should be dealt with in the future and what can be the approach to climate change that can make a difference here?

DANIEL SWAIN: Well, you know, wildfire and global warming sort of represents an interesting example of a natural hazard that, in places like California or, really, anywhere with a Mediterranean climate with high fire risk, where there is a significant degree of pre-existing risk, that people who live in these regions and people who plan, do hazard planning in these regions, are well aware of. But the warming temperatures aggravate this existing risk and, in some cases, make it considerably worse than it would have been otherwise. And so, you know, in some ways, the same sorts of adaptations that we make to wildfires, in general, will still apply to the wildfires of the future. That may include being careful where we build our homes in urban areas and, you know, thinking more carefully about what we do and how we manage fires once they occur.

But on the bigger scale, the changes in climate that we’re experiencing are largely due to the human emission of greenhouse gases. And we expect warming to continue for as long as we continue to emit those greenhouse gases. And so, there’s both a challenge and an opportunity here, where if we choose to reduce and eventually to eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions, we will avert much of the warming, much of the increased risk of extreme events like wildfires that otherwise would have occurred. And right now we’re starting to see signs of heading in that trajectory, at least internationally, but we’re still not quite where we need to be, to be on the right track to eventually level off that risk.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Democracy Now! spoke with Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. I asked him about the failure of network TV meteorologists to make the connection between extreme weather and climate change.

PARK WILLIAMS: I think it’s because the term “global warming” and the term “climate change” have been politicized. But in the circles that I work with, with real climatologists who are working on these issues every day, there is no hesitation to use those terms. As you put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the globe warms, whether it’s the Earth or another planet. It’s just the law of physics. And so, it is surprising to see trained meteorologists on TV steer away from those terms.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s climate scientist Park Williams.

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