By Mike Byron
As I write the sky outside is an eerie brown-gray. Although it’s around noontime, the sun is barely visible through the shroud of smoke hanging above. A light rain of ash falls steadily. Southern California in general and San Diego County in particular are at the center of a firestorm. Here in San Diego County between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.
I’ve lived in Southern California since arriving here at age 12. That was thirty-eight years ago, back in 1969. So I know that autumn in Southern California is often a time of firestorms driven by Santa Ana winds. That is not unusual. However the intensity of these firestorms and in particular the number of separate fires burning at once has increased. So has the destructiveness of these fires, measured in terms of property damage.
How to account for this? I believe that three related factors are combining to produce this dire result:
1) Suburban sprawl is out of control across Southern California. San Diego County is no exception.[i] Further, these houses are not fire-resistant.
2) An overall, long-term effect of global warming upon Southern California’s climate is to produce longer, hotter, and drier summers. [ii]
3) Human-caused global warming is increasing the heat content of the oceans. Temperatures have risen by over a half degree Fahrenheit on average across the world’s oceans already. [iii] This temperature rise is increasing the frequency of the Pacific Ocean phenomenon called El Niño.[iv] [v] According to climate researchers, El Niño acts as a safety valve for excess heat buildup in the tropics that normal oceanic currents and weather cannot dissipate.[vi] [vii]The effect of this is to shift winter rainfall across the Pacific to the West Coast of the United States.[viii] California, and especially Southern California, experiences wetter than normal winters when El Niño occurs.
Combining these three variables explains what is happening in Southern California as I type these words:
El Niño conditions in 2004-5 in Southern California produced record winter rainfall.[ix] This led to an exuberant growth of foliage across the region. This excess of vegetation subsequently died off and was desiccated by two long, hot summers in 2006 and 2007. These summers were separated by a record low rain season in 2006-7.[x] The vegetation was converted to explosively dry kindling which awaited the arrival of seasonal Santa Ana winds to begin to blow fast, hot and dry from east to west across Southern California.
Once these winds arrived on 21 October, 2007, a firestorm which would engulf the ever-sprawling suburbs of Southern California including San Diego County was inevitable. And now the conflagrations rage.
Everything was wholly predictable. Yet nothing was done to avert it. This is because taking effective action would require that we fundamentally change the way that our political economy is organized.
To abate the frequency of future El Niños along with the trend towards ever longer, drier, and hotter summers, we must reduce the profligate burning of coal, oil and natural gas. Developing non-polluting alternative sources of energy, using less energy, and just generally wanting less stuff are all urgently needed. As to suburban sprawl, planning, smart growth and “New Urbanism” (a return to well designed walkable cities in which people actually live and work) are alternatives.
Although this urban planning could be very profitable, our housing industry will of course oppose this because it may reduce their short-term profits and because it requires them to give some actual thought to their housing development designs. Such things are inherently “bad for business” according to the rulers of our economic and political system.
And so, here in Southern California on this gloomy afternoon, the ashes of thousands of burning homes fall upon us. Will we ever learn?