Saturday morning I went outside while it was still dark. As I walked past an overhead light I looked up and saw a stream of tiny particles drifting down to the ground. It was ash. I knew there was a fire somewhere.
It wasn’t until later in the day that I found out the fire was in Santa Clarita. I was in Burbank, and looking toward the north you could see a massive, dark, grey cloud spreading across the sky.
The older I get, the more uneasy I feel during the fire season. I’m not worried about my own safety. The most destructive fires generally happen far away from the center of the city. What really scares me is knowing that thousands of acres and millions of trees are going up in smoke. Tune in to the news and you can see raging infernos sweeping across California’s hills and mountains. Sometimes it feels like the whole state is on fire.
I just mentioned how uneasy I felt during the fire season, but I should have said “seasons”. In California there are actually two periods when fires are likely to burn. The summer season, when high temperatures dry out our forests, and the Santa Ana season, when hot winds drive fast-burning blazes that generally threaten coastal areas. In recent years, both of these periods have grown longer, and the fires have grown larger. See this article from KCET’s web site for more details.
There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that the hotter, drier weather we’ve been experiencing for years now isn’t just a drought, but that the climate in the Western US is changing. Snow packs have been declining for decades, and warmer temperatures are causing the snow to melt earlier. This is one of the reasons that our summer fire season has grown longer and more destructive.
If climate change is a factor in causing more large scale fires, this is doubly disturbing, because these fires also release huge amounts of carbon into the air. More carbon in the atmosphere accelerates climate change, which scientists believe will lead to even hotter, drier weather, which will lead to more intense and more destructive fires. This article from Berkeley News summarizes the findings of a study conducted by the National Park Service and UC Berkeley.
Watching thick, dark smoke billow across the sky on Saturday was scary. But what’s even scarier is what will happen in the years to come if the scientists are right. The evidence has been mounting for years that our addiction to fossil fuels will cause irreversible damage to the planet. We’ve made some progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California, but we need to do a lot more. Otherwise our skies, and our future, will continue to grow darker.