With California Gov. Jerry Brown blaming future wildfires on President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, it’s worth examining the reasons the state has always been prone to devastating fires.
First, it’s worth noting that fires in the dry brushy environment of the state are normal and unavoidable. They have always been around, though with higher populations in ever greater density, with more homes built on more hills and more canyons, the damage these infernos cause becomes ever more spectacular.
How far back was Southern California observed to be a land of smoke and fire? In 1542, the first Spanish ship sailed the coast and dubbed either Santa Monica Bay or San Pedro Bay as “the Bay of Smoke.”
- California is mostly desert. It normally doesn’t rain in Southern California from June through September – at all. Rains can begin in October or November, but not necessarily and usually not heavily. March, April and May precipitation tapers off, meaning it’s unusual. In 1979, I moved from New York to L.A. and was astonished to see the reaction to the first light rain falling in November. People came out of their houses and apartments to stand in the street in admiration and wonder – like you might expect. It was like watching children react to the first snowfall in winter back East. By the way, California has been a desert for thousands of years. It’s not because of man-made activity, increases in carbon dioxide or catastrophic climate change.
- Southern California has always had an unusual seasonal weather pattern that causes winds to blow from East to West, rather than from the normal pattern around the world, which is West to East. They are called Santa Ana winds, but they were originally called Satana winds by the early Spanish settlers – Satan winds that bring dry heat from the Mojave Desert to the heavily populated coastal areas. These winds occur beginning in the fall and often through December.
- There’s not enough rainfall in California to support its heavy population – especially without dams and reservoirs that politicians are reluctant to build. Even unusually heavy rains in the winter often lead to catastrophic fires in the summer and fall because of the combustible brush that grows and later dries out as a result of the previous winter’s moisture.
- Sun lovers have flocked to California in huge numbers, and population has exploded due to heavy immigration from Latin America and the world over since the 1960s, increasing the demand on water supplies. As a result, government has often rationed the use of water by homeowners who would otherwise use it to protect their properties from fires in dry areas.
- The increase in building to accommodate the burgeoning population means more homes on hills and canyons that are the most likely to be scorched by devastating fires at some point. Escaping them for a decade or two or longer defies all odds. I lived in one of those hillside areas with fantastic views, but fires are always a threat, and many of those properties have little access to conventional firefighting abilities.
- Not only are Santa Ana winds a problem, but so are the westerly winds that sometimes exceed 100 mph, spreading even the smallest fires beyond the ability of firefighters to contain.
- The increase in population leads to more fire carelessness and even arson – both of which have led to an increase in devastating wildfires. But even natural lightning strikes are responsible for igniting some of the biggest fires in California history.
- California is known for the distinctive smell of its eucalyptus trees. But these trees contain a highly flammable oil that can cause them to actually explode in fireballs. With forests of eucalyptus trees in the state, you can imagine how this contributes to what the world is witnessing again this hot winter in the state.
- Have temperatures risen in California over the last 60 years? Yes and no. They have risen in urban areas, as they do everywhere, as more asphalt and concrete, which maintain heat, is poured. But they have not risen in more rural areas, according to measurements studied by NASA and Cal State L.A. But temperatures overall on average throughout the state have remained essentially unchanged.
By the way, I left California for good after 20 years, not because of the fires, not because of the heat and not because of the winter mudslides that follow the fires. I left because of the catastrophic shift in the cultural and political climate in 1999.