The forecast for August 8th was ominous. The temperature in Portland was predicted to breach 100 hundred degrees for the second time in a couple weeks. In the end, the mercury stalled at 96 degrees because the sun was blotted out for most of the day by a thick pall of pinkish smoke from the Mendocino fires 500 miles to the south. Two days later the undulating jet stream carried traces of the smoke another 3000 miles east to New York City and beyond.
In just two weeks, the Mendocino Fire complex had scorched 340,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in California history. The Mendo fire started four days after the Carr Fire ignited, which destroyed more than 1000 homes and killed eight people near the city of Redding in northern California. The Carr Fire, still burning in mid-August, has seared more than 210,000 acres. In the Sierras, the 100,000 Ferguson Fire closed the Yosemite National Park and killed two firefighters. In southern California, the Holy Jack Fire erupted in a mushroom cloud of smoke on Hiroshima Day. California was burning from border to border.
Clarence Sibsey is a fire refugee. For the second time in two years, he was forced to evacuate his home near Clear Lake. “We’ve never had fires like this before,” Sibsey told the Los Angeles Times. “Why now?”
In one of his most mystical Tweets, Donald Trump tried to give Sibsey an answer. The president blamed the California fires on the state’s policy of allowing some of the waters from its much-molested rivers to empty into the Pacific Ocean, instead of being totally diverted into the irrigation ditches of the Central Valley and the Klamath Basin. It may have escaped the President’s keen grasp of California geography that the two biggest fires are burning adjacent to several of the state’s largest lakes, including Lake Shasta, Trinity Lake and Clear Lake.
Following Trump’s lead, Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, strode forth to calm a troubled nation by assuring us that the historic fire-season had nothing to do with climate change. Instead, Zinke pointed the finger at radical environmentalists as the culprits, who the former Navy SEAL and failed micro-brewmeister alleged had shut down logging across the West. “America is better than letting these radical groups control the dialogue about climate change,” Zinke fumed “Extreme environmentalists have shut down public access. They talk about habitat and yet they are willing to burn it up.”
In the last 20 years, 84% of wildfires haven’t been “wild.” They’ve been started by humans, many of them by people affiliated with the timber industry seeking to profit from post-fire salvage logging.
In order not to excite skeptical minds, Zinke has cut all funding for federal research into the links between climate change and wildfires. As if to drive home the point, Trump’s EPA hubristically unveiled its plans to rollback emissions standards for new cars and trucks with the California fires as a kind of operatic backdrop.
Not even the timber industry is taking Zinke seriously. Their own internal documents reveal what should be obvious to all: extreme heat is fueling the mega-fires. Across the West, temperatures have increased by more than 2 degrees since the mid-1970s. Higher temperatures lead to drier vegetation. As a consequence, wildfires burn hotter, longer and spread faster. The proof is on the ground. Since 1984, the average number of acres burned in the West each year has more than doubled. The fire season starts earlier and ends later. In California, the fire season has expanded by 76 days since the mid-80s.
Last September, San Francisco, notorious for its frigid, fog-bound summers, hit 106 degrees, shattering a record for any date. On the day the Carr Fire ignited, the temperature in Redding topped out at 113 degrees. The Carr Fire raged with such fury that it created fire vortexes that propelled plumes of searing air 40,000 feet into the sky at speeds of 130 miles per hour.
The Mendo fires burned on the outskirts of wine country in (take note, Mr. President) Lake County about 120 miles north of San Francisco. Since 2012, more than half of the land in the county has been burned over. Lake County is now the most fire-prone county in California, perhaps the entire United States. In 2015, the Valley Fire consumed 1,300 homes and killed four people. The next year, the Clayton Fire roared through the town of Lower Lake, incinerating more than 300 houses, mobile homes, offices and churches. Land that was just burned was now burning again.
July 2018 was not just the hottest month in California history, it may have been one of the hottest months on Earth in the last 40,000 years with the daily temperatures (night and day) in Death Valley averaging 108 degrees, six degrees higher than normal. July 24th saw the hottest rain ever recorded, when a cloudburst opened over Imperial County when the temperature was 119 degrees.
Meanwhile, back up in Oregon, the Columbia Gorge is burning again. Four major fires have blackened more than 100,000 acres and will likely burn until the November rains. Or longer. There are still embers smoking from last year’s fires. In Portland, the temperature topped 90 degrees 15 times in the month of July alone, the hottest on record. For perspective, from 1941 to 1975, Portland averaged only nine 90 degree days for an entire year. Since 2000, the annual number climbed to 15 days. In the past two years, the average has been 22 days. Through mid-August of this year, the temperature in Portland has already hit 90 degrees 25 times, and that’s with the skies turned opaque by layers of smoke.
Call it a heat wave if you want, but up here it felt like the summer of no return.