Are California's fires a sign of the new normal?

The catastrophic Kincade fire may be contained, but is it a sign of things to come? If so, will wine producers have to plan for wild fires? Jeff Siegel looks at the evidence.

A map of the Kincade fires/Google
A map of the Kincade fires/Google

Are devastating wine country wildfires, courtesy of climate change, the new normal? Will producers and growers in the Napa and Sonoma regions in northern California, two of the most important appellations in the world, have to plan their winemaking and grape growing around massive wildfires every year?

That's the question many are beginning to ask in the wake of the most recent wine country blaze, the Kincade fire in Sonoma County. It has grown to more than 76,825 acres (31,090 ha) near some of the country's prime wine growing land in the last week of October, and much of the region was under a mandatory evacuation order. Napa Valley hasn't been damaged so far, but the fire did destroy several Alexander Valley wineries, including Sonoma’s historic Soda Rock Winery. Local media reported that the only thing left was the winery's stone facade and a 20-foot steel sculpture of a boar standing in its path.

Is this damage and destruction an example of how climate change will increase the chances for killer wildfires? Computer models predict that climate change will be less rain, but that what there is will be more concentrated when it does happen. This will encourage more plant growth that will burn more easily as it dries out over the course of the year. So those two conditions mean it will make it easier for fires to start and to burn longer.

"Is this the new normal? I don't think we know enough yet to answer that question," says Sarge Green, the interim director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at the Water and Energy Technology Center in Fresno. "Yes, there was a wet year, and that has added lots of fuel, which is what has happened this fall as things have dried out. But this fire has not been as bad as the fires in Paradise and Santa Rosa in 2018."

Instead, says Green, this year's fires, including the dangerous Getty fire in and around Los Angeles, are as much of a combination of California politics, population growth, and public awareness.

First, the state's biggest utility, PG&E, apparently didn't maintain the electric grid infrastructure as it should have, and was also remiss in clearing brush, dead trees, and the like, which are the fuel for wildfires. State regulators say PG&E equipment probably sparked one of the 2018 fires, as well as the Kincade blaze. But, says Green, if the utility was remiss in clearing brush, it also was afraid of butting heads with environmental groups leery of how the utility would perform the task. So it may have not done as much as it should have, to avoid a confrontation.

Hence, massive blackouts up and down the state, including those in the wine country several weeks ago. Millions were without power over the weekend; PG&E officials have said it's safer to turn the power off when wildfire chances increase than to take the risk that its equipment would start one.

Second, more people are living in areas prone to wildfires than ever before. That means more buildings and more development in high-risk areas, as well as fewer natural conditions to slow the growth of a fire. A subdivision will burn more quickly and suffer more damage than an uninhabited piece of ground in rural northern California where the subdivision was built.

Finally, the public is more aware of fires, thanks to the past several years, than ever before. This heightened perception, says Green, means every year will seem like a crisis, "even though there are wildfires in California almost every year."

None of this, he says, downplays the terror and loss in this year's fires, or the responsibility that utility officials may have shirked in preventing the first. It's about perspective and trying to figure out what comes next.

Jeff Siegel

 

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