The new abnormal: why fires like Paradise will happen again and again

ruth mclarty sifts through the remains of her destroyed home in paradise, california
Ruth McLarty sifts through the remains of her destroyed home in Paradise, California. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Of the traumatic consequences of climate change, scientists consider increasingly ferocious wildfires to be one of the most starkly apparent

— Ruth McLarty, an experienced surgeon, was fairly certain she was about to die in a particularly grisly way. Surrounded by a hellish inferno of burning trees and cars, McLarty reasoned the flames would engulf her long before the smoke could choke her to death.

Trapped in nearby vehicles, some of McLarty’s colleagues made similarly macabre calculations. Two nurses, stuck in the back of a stalled police car, contemplated shooting each other. Another nurse rolled down her window and gulped in the smoke. McLarty edged her car away from a burning wreckage, fired off some final messages to her sister and called her daughter, who said she could hear the roar of the blaze over the phone.

“Once you feel heat, you know that your car can’t last very long,” said McLarty, a slight, deliberate woman who, little over an hour previously, was in a hospital conducting a gallbladder operation when she was told to evacuate.

“You can hear other people’s cars blow up. I grew up thinking that when people died in fires, they died from the smoke and so they didn’t really suffer. But I’m thinking ‘this is coming fast enough … I don’t think that I’m gonna die from smoke.’”

As McLarty arrived at this grim conclusion, a bulldozer emerged from the sun-blotting pall of smoke and shoved an abandoned car off the road, opening an escape path for McLarty and a few others to dart to safety in a nearby field. “This poor man. I mean, he’s just driving to his death, and they cleared a path,” McLarty said. “It was apocalyptic.”

ruth mclarty, a surgeon, was in the middle of doing an operation at the feather river hospital in paradise when she was told to evacuate because of the wildfire

Ruth McLarty, a surgeon, was in the middle of doing an operation at the Feather River hospital in Paradise when she was told to evacuate because of the wildfire. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

 

The bulldozer driver, she later found out, survived, as did others given just minutes to flee the incinerated town of Paradise, California, on 8 November. Heather Roebuck delivered her daughter by cesarean section at McLarty’s hospital and had to be dragged on a stretcher through thick smoke to safety. Brad Weldon somehow stopped flames devouring his home, aided by buckets, a hose and his blind and immobile 90-year-old mother. More than a dozen terrified people waded into a frigid reservoir, nearly succumbing to the cold while their neighbours were perishing in the heat.

Still, the Camp fire is comfortably the deadliest in California history, with 85 confirmed deaths and a few dozen people unaccounted for. More than 50,000 others were scattered into refugee tent encampments, hotels, relatives’ couches. “We are a town in exile,” said Michael Orr, a Paradise resident now living on an air mattress at his in-laws’ house in Chico.

Of the 10 most destructive fires in California’s history, five have occurred since October last year

 

Nine in 10 homes in Paradise have been reduced to clumps of ash, mixed with twisted metal, as if the settlement has been carpet-bombed by a brutal invader. Chimneys, like tombstones for a lost town, are the only things left standing. The birds fled along with the humans leaving Paradise an eerily quiet place with a lingering smell of charcoal.

The visceral trauma of having a town wiped off the map is the nadir in an astonishing burst of recent wildfires – of the 10 most destructive fires in California’s recorded history, five have occurred since October last year.

“The landscape is changing into the appropriate climate zone that we are moving towards,” said LeRoy Westerling, a climate change and fire expert at the University of California, Merced, who attempts to work out how wildfires will spread as temperatures continue to rise. “The fires seem to be outpacing our predictions. The Camp fire shocked me by how fast it was.”

most of the town of paradise was obliterated in the camp fire

Most of the town of Paradise was obliterated in the Camp Fire. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

 

California is in the grip of what its governor, Jerry Brown, calls the “new abnormal”. The past five years have been the hottest on record in the state, which is in stuttering recovery from its worst drought in a millennium. The state has received just a fifth of its normal rainfall so far in 2018, with a record 1.6m acres of grassland, forest and urban area, an area larger than Delaware, burning this year.

Of the multifarious consequences of climate change, scientists consider increasingly ferocious wildfires to be one of the most starkly apparent. Rising atmospheric heat – average minimum temperatures in California are 2.3°F warmer than a century ago – is drying out trees and shrubs, drawing moisture away from the soil and shrinking the snowpack. Dampening rains are becoming erratic, or, like this year, not materializing at all.

This creates a tinderbox for wildfires, which can ignite from actions as simple as sparks flying from a trailer dragging on the road or a faulty power line. There’s also evidence that climate change will help southern California’s autumn winds, known as Santa Anas or Diablos, fan wildfires. A 2016 study found climate change has doubled the total area burned in the western US since the 1980s.

Something on the scale of the Camp fire, where a funnel of flame seared through a town in a few hours, could’ve conceivably occurred 50 years ago but it would’ve involved a “very unlikely sequence of climate events you wouldn’t see again”, Westerling said.

“Now we are seeing it happen again and again, year after year,” he added. “The climate will continue to warm and will continue to surprise us. No one alive today will ever see a stable climate system again. This is going to be changing for the rest of our lives.”

ruth mclarty’s house was completely destroyed by the fire, just a few mugs managed to survive

Ruth McLarty’s house was completely destroyed by the fire, just a few mugs managed to survive. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

 

Firefighters now face a grueling workload that lasts all year, rather than tapering off in time for Thanksgiving. Last October, the Tubbs fire razed chunks of Santa Rosa, causing 22 deaths. It was swiftly followed by the Thomas fire, which burned a vast swath of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and primed the landscape for mudslides that killed more than 20 people.

Then, during the Carr fire in July, the public was introduced to the terrifying concept of a fire tornado, or firenado, when a monstrous seven-mile high flaming column killed a firefighter, Jeremy Stoke, who was attempting to evacuate people on the edge of Redding.

“A whole bunch of fires have piled on to the top of each other and haven’t stopped,” said Scott McLean, deputy chief of Cal Fire, who oversaw crews working 24-hour shifts during the fight to save Paradise. “I grew up in this state and you’d never really get fires like this in November or December. We’re now fighting fire all year round. There’s no fire season any more. People are tired. It’s a constant battle.”

“I grew up in this state and you’d never really get fires like this in November or December” – Scott McLean, deputy chief of Cal Fire

 

The situation is set to become worse. An exhaustive climate change assessment by the US government predicts the area of the western US consumed by wildfire annually is set to double, or even increase sixfold, within 30 years as the planet continues to warm.

Confronted by the findings of his government’s scientists, Donald Trump bluntly stated, “I don’t believe it.” The president has, instead, blamed the “gross mismanagement of forests” in California, a state where the majority of woodland is overseen by the federal government. To add to the confusion, Trump, whose recent ecological pronouncements include “oceans are very small”, suggested “cleaning and raking” forests to prevent future conflagrations.

Others in the administration argued the issue more conventionally. Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary and former Navy Seal, recently visited Paradise and likened it to Falluja, the Iraqi city flattened during the second Gulf war. Zinke has blamed “radical environmentalists” for preventing proper management of the forests and has vowed to loosen rules to allow more intervention.

Decades of fire suppression by firefighters has interrupted the natural cycle of forest regeneration, allowing fuel to build up and ignite in huge blazes. During the Ronald Reagan administration, the government spent a few hundred thousand dollars on firefighting – this year it could top $4bn.

climate change has created a tinderbox for wildfires

A burnt bush in Paradise, California. Climate change has created a tinderbox for wildfires. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

 

The idea of “thinning” the forest to reduce this fuel, however, is viewed suspiciously by many ecologists who see it as a euphemism for logging that can make wildfires more rampant. “It may make donors some money but it won’t do anything to help communities facing the dangers of wildfires,” said Westerling.

There’s agreement, at least, that rustic settlements need to adapt – better building materials to resist flying embers, moats of cleared vegetation around houses, widened roads to act as firebreaks. One in three Americans now live among forested areas, with many of them drawn to scenes similar to Paradise – an affordable enclave nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a bucolic patchwork of almond farms and vineyards.

The more complicated question is what to do when things start to go awry, when fires and floods spurred by climate change force growing numbers of Americans to flee their homes. Rebuilding is under way in Santa Rosa following the fires last year, but “for every building going up you see about 10 lots empty and another 10 for sale,” admitted Shirlee Zane, supervisor of Sonoma county. “Climate change is here and affecting us in catastrophic ways.”

Jody Jones, Paradise’s mayor, has vowed the town will “rise from the ashes”, but when you stand in the muddy surrounds of Walmart in Chico, where 75 bedraggled tents full of Paradise evacuees continue to stand, it’s clear that the phenomenon of climate refugees won’t be restricted to places such as Bangladesh and far-flung Pacific islands.

“A lot of people are desperate,” said Naomi Larae, who had nowhere else to turn to other than the encampment, known in a sardonic nod to Hollywood as “Wallywood”, and has suffered the indignity of having her tent stolen.

Back in Paradise, the town twice mistakenly called “Pleasure” by Trump, Ruth McLarty sifted through the remnants of her home. Her daughter rescued her laptop, as well as the dog and parakeet, but the clarinet and piano are just cinders now, the sofa merely springs. McLarty picked up one of the few surviving items, a mug with “Hawaii” emblazoned on it, only for the handle to split off in her hand.

“It’s just surreal, you don’t really know what to think, how to process it,” she said, plucking a blackened bowl from the ashy detritus that was once her kitchen.

“Do I even bother to try to stay? So much is lost and it will take so long to repopulate. I really don’t know. I just can’t see the future right now.”


by Oliver Milman | The Guardian