This week’s much-anticipated storm was a dud. Many parts of the state got no measurable rain. On the bright side, there does seem to be some significant (but modest) improvement in the Sierra snowpack, although it is still only 15 percent of average – a record low.
The term “historic” gets bandied about every time there is record-setting weather. But there are also weather events – like this drought perhaps – that really are historic in the sense that they change the history of the people in a given area.
Consider the ancient Pueblo peoples whose advanced civilization collapsed in one of the West’s occasional megadroughts, illustrated by the archaeological traces of their retreat into the more remote, more-defensible (and presumably better-watered) canyons. These ancient people’s more familiar name “Anasazi” is from another language (because their own history ended in their drought), but their story is made relevant by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
Despite the dire title of his book, Diamond also looks at societies that make the changes needed to avoid collapse. So we should look to ways that we might make lemonade out of our lemons: This drought can be the point at which we start taking climate change seriously.
The historical nature of the drought is all too real for the 17 communities already expected to run out of water this spring. Urban California is still a ways from that, but there are two main ways that I see a truly historic shift underway on the statewide level. First, climate change seems to be undermining the computer models used to forecast weather; this will confront us with more uncertainty about even short-term forecasts. Second, we face a much broader threat of fires than before, both geographically and seasonally.
The most optimistic forecast I see at the moment says only that the root of the drought, that persistent high-pressure ridge, will regenerate but “not be as intense, increasing the odds that a low pressure system will be able to break the ridge by mid-February and bring more rain to the state.”
Of course, even that optimism assumes the hypothetical future existence of a low-pressure system heading in the right direction with enough energy to break through the hopefully weakened ridge, which is not supported by our experiences this winter.
I’ve been keeping an eye on weather blogs lately, and one that has particularly impressed me is Weather West. It is written by a PhD candidate named Daniel Swain, who first named California’s weather nemesis the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.” Unlike many other weather sites, Weather West has a nice, respectful atmosphere in the comments; I highly recommend it as a way to gain a basic familiarity with what’s happening to our weather – particularly the constant change in forecasts that is chronicled in the comments section.
It’s hard to say what rain will actually fall this year. But the weather seems to have shifted to where the old computer models don’t work as reliably as before. They keep making assumptions that are no longer true – for example: the high-pressure ridge off our coast will break down after a week or two. Rain has been occasionally forecast during the last two months, only to fade as the supposed arrival drew near. This cycle seems to be underway yet again.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Water Resources has just announced that unless the rains come it will cut State Water Project deliveries to zero for the first time ever – including to urban areas.
The End of “Fire Season”
This week’s rain was better than nothing, but only brought enough moisture to germinate some seeds and give us a nice reassuring coat of green on the hills. All those little plants that sprout will last for a few days or weeks, and then most of them will die. They evolved for a rainy season, and not just a little rain every couple of months, which seems to be our new normal this year.
Whatever green shoots sprout this month will probably grow a bit, struggle, die and then dry out, leaving us with a bit more tinder to get the fires started this summer – or maybe this spring.
Fires this year are going to be interesting. Heck, we might see fires every month depending on the winds, which seem to come up with less and less warning these days.
They had fires up in Oregon in January. And now Norway is experiencing its largest fire (of any month) since World War II, with 139 buildings already destroyed; this follows on the heels of another fire that burned 40 structures.
Another blogger that I’ve been reading lately is robertscribbler, whose recent post describes the Norway fire as “historic.” But is that fire in particular really historic? If Oslo burned it would unquestionably be a major turning point in the history of Norway, but I doubt that any single rural wildfire can truly wear that label.
I’m not even sure that “historic” fits a huge and memorable rash of fires like California’s 2008 outbreak, which peaked with close to 3,000 fires burning a and thick smoke choking the state for weeks. Those fires were historically remarkable, but were they historic? Did they result in profound and long-lasting changes to land use or fire suppression? It doesn’t seem like it.
By the standard I’m suggesting, the recent fires we’ve seen in California are historic despite their relatively mild destruction. These winter blazes undermine the very concept of “fire season” in California. We can no longer say that fire season started early or ended late if fires burn through the winter. Fires can happen at any time and in any place. (Oregon and Norway! In January!)
California’s wildfire response is a seasonal system and it is not clear that perpetual readiness can be maintained. Certainly some fire crews can be idled in the winter and spring, but if this drought is as historic as it seems to be, we’ll need to have at least some crews and equipment ready to go year-round, year after year. This raises a variety of issues, which I’m not qualified to do more than raise as questions:
How will year-round readiness be budgeted in a time of diminished government funding? When will equipment be maintained if some of it must be ready at all times? How will a year-round threat of fires affect the lives of firefighters who must leave their homes and families for periods no longer confined to the summer and fall?
All this suggests that some dramatic changes are needed.
What to Do?
Unpredictable but generally dry weather creates a serious problem for planning how to deal with fires. And I think this problem will demand more grassroots participation in dealing with fires.
Conventional wisdom is that wildfires are best left to professionals, and that a last stand on the roof with a garden hose should be discouraged. But perhaps we need to find a third way between the professionalized firefighters and the garden hose approach. This will help provide a quicker response when fires are still small and relatively easy to contain – particularly during times when professional fire crews are idled (during what’s left of the winter) or overwhelmed (during the summer and fall).
I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s early cooperative organizing, back in 1752. The Philadelphia Contributionship was a collective response to fire threats; it is the nation’s oldest insurer of property and membership benefits originally included protection by organized fire crews.
I’m also inspired by some of the survivors of the 2003 Cedar Fire near San Diego. This group has rebuilt together with a collective spirit, which among other benefits helped them respond to a later fire.
Thinking about historic weather – events that really change our history – is unpleasant business. But think we must. And we must be careful not to think that the current severity of drought is the worst that history can send our way.
It’s not possible to predict how the drought will unfold. Maybe we are at the start of a decades-long megadrought. Maybe next year we’ll get flooded out and our water crisis will be postponed. But in any case, California doesn’t get enough rain for 40 million people in a “normal” year. Before long we’ll be back in this same position, scrambling to save water and put out brush fires without the systemic changes we need to make.
Rather than simply hoping that it rains and our difficult choices can be postponed, we should embrace this opportunity to take a hard look at our civilization’s choices, and seek to make the next chapter of our history better than the last.