want you to indulge me for a minute. I want you to put on your
scientist hats with me and engage in a bit of an experiment.
a bagel. Cut it in half. Dip about 1/3 of it in water for a couple of
seconds. Then put the bagel in the toaster oven for about 5-10
minutes. Remove and see the results.
you’ll find is that the part of the bagel that hasn’t been dipped
in water is, well, toast. The dipped part — significantly less so.
If you continued to toast the bagel, eventually the heat from the
oven will cause the undipped side to burn. Take even more time and
the heat would overcome the moisture on the dipped side and cause it
to burn as well.
was the result of my at-home experiment after about 10 minutes in
the oven at 425 degrees. Can you guess which half was dipped in
more heat, the faster both sides of the bagel burn. But the drier
side always first. The wetter side always second.
a simple fact that moisture — whether loaded into bagels or soaking
into vegetation and the ground — adds
more resiliency and resistance to fire.
And this year, given the massive amount of moisture that fell across
all of California during the winter and spring of 2016-2017 we didn’t
really expect summer and fall to be all that bad of a fire season.
famous Pineapple Express kept delivering storm after storm after
storm. Dams were strained to bursting and over-spill. Roads were
washed out. Water rescues were performed. And when all was said and
done, California had experienced its
wettest water-year in all of the last 122.
Given such an obscene amount of water flooding the state, we
certainly didn’t expect what happened next. All that moisture
soaking into lands, soils, trees, vegetation told us a story. It told
us a story that we thought we knew.
California flood forecast from January 9, 2017 is easy to forget
given the record fires we see today. But the temperature and
moisture extremes experienced are an aspect of a warming climate.
These floods inflicted more than 1.5 billion in damages.
we didn’t count on was the oven-like heat that followed. Nor the
simple fact that resiliency, no matter how strong at first, is not
speaking, heat is the primary factor in fire hazard so long as fuels
are present. Drought is also a factor, though a somewhat less certain
one because eventually most fuels are consumed if drought sets in for
long enough. As with the bagel, enough heat will eventually blast
through any moisture loading so long as that moisture is not
recharged to great risk of consuming and conflagrating the fuels that
soaked up the moisture in the first place.
its most basic level, this is why global warming promotes fire
hazard. If you bake the forests, grasses and shrubs enough, they will
there is one thing we know about climate change and weather it is
that it promotes extremes. Particularly extreme swings between
cooler+wet and record hot+dry as the water cycle is thrown through
the atmospheric equivalent of a hyperloop. And the level of extremity
California experienced from winter to summer ran a six month race
from wettest to hottest. For following the early year deluge, 2017
rapidly rocketed into the hottest summer in California history.
Temperatures in many places regularly soared to well above the
scorching 100 degree mark. Records for all-time hottest days fell
like trees before the wild hurricane.
sections of the west, including California, experienced their
hottest summer on record. Image source: NOAA.
given so much excessive heat, it didn’t take long for the fires to
arise even following a record wet winter.
won’t go through all the exhaustive numbers of that grim tally of
burning. But we will say that more than ten thousand homes and
buildings burned. That many souls perished in the blazes. That
billions in damages were inflicted. At times, ash and embers rained
down across California as if from a volcanic eruption. The skies —
marred by great pillars of smoke erupting from a blasted Earth. To
say it was merely the worst fire year California has ever experienced
would be to do the nightmare of it all an illiterate, unfeeling,
summer fires that came with the heat burned mostly the north. The
rains, that were so strong in winter took a bad turn once the heat
blazed through the lands enough to dry out all that new forest and
grass regrowth. Here we were witnessing, before our very eyes, the
kind of new conditions 1.1 degrees Celsius worth of global warming
was capable of producing.
battling the Thomas Fire, which is just 500 acres away from being
the largest in California history. Image source: Campus
of that warming, we know now that fire season never really ends any
more in California. A point that was driven viciously home as summer
proceeded into fall and the fires still raged in October. By
December, the heat and dryness had not relented. Not enough at least.
The normally wet month had been transformed. And the carry over of
that damage done by the furnaces of summer had prepped the land for