life after warming

California Can’t Afford to Wait for Climate Action

The view from the hills above Berkeley, California, at 9 a.m. on September 9. Photo: Clara Mokri

What can be done? On the eve of Labor Day weekend, three of the four largest fires in state history were still burning, a Bay Area ring of fire, with none of them yet entirely “contained.” On Friday night, the Creek Fire broke out in Fresno County, and quickly grew past 100,000 acres in two days, the threshold which often marks the difference between “horrific” and “historic.” About half the homes in nearby Big Creek were destroyed, with the fire still, Cal Fire reported, zero percent contained. The state’s offshore winds, long understood as the driver of the most devastating and out-of-control fire disasters, had not yet even arrived.

When they did, they ignited something like a whole new fire season, compressed into just a few days. The Bear Fire, in Northern California, burned through an estimated 250,000 acres in a day — around 400 square miles, about as much destroyed in a single day as all the fires of 2019 had ravaged, combined. Up the coast, in Oregon, five separate towns had been “substantially destroyed,” said Governor Kate Brown, with smoke carried forward by near-hurricane strength winds whipping flames forward. “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Brown said. In the west Cascade foothills, less than 100 miles from one another, five separate fires had burned over 100,000 acres each, and only one was so much as 5 percent contained. Across the state, more than 850,000 acres had burned, and 500,000 people — about one-tenth of the state’s population — faced evacuation alerts, with many evacuees piling into urban Portland, which was experiencing, at the time, the worst air quality anywhere in the world. In Washington, too, 300,000 acres were burning, including practically the entire town of Malden. In Oroville, in California, where historic floods had threatened a local dam and forced the evacuation of more than 180,000 in 2017, the approach of the Bear Fire meant that 20,000 were ordered to immediately flee. In photographs, the nearby Bidwell Bar Bridge, normally green, and the sky and the flames and the bridge itself, were all blurry variations of the same shade of burning rust. You could mistake it for the Golden Gate Bridge.

In San Francisco, Wednesday at noon, you couldn’t see anything. “No measurable sunlight” was penetrating the canopy of smoke and reaching the ground — the fire equivalent of an eclipse. Rooftop solar stopped working. It was 30-degrees colder than had been predicted on the ground. A friend’s toddler walked out the front door with a flashlight, searching for the sidewalk. With smoke plumes rising to 50,000 feet, you couldn’t even fly above the fires anymore, only through them. The behavior of smoke clouds, the National Weather Service said, “was beyond the scope of our models.”

Bidwell Bar Bridge in Oroville, California, surrounded by the Bear Fire on September 9. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

On social media, in a mood of tragic acquiescence, people were posting real-time photographs of Bay Area burnt-orange skies alongside stills of Blade Runner 2049 and debating how much science-fiction dystopia had already gotten right. Among climate activists, the mood was exhaustion and urgency — fury that so little had been made of climate change in recent coverage of this summer’s historic heat wave, which ended in these flames, and conviction that these fires made the case for climate action, again, as if the world needed another reason to move much more quickly. The conviction was echoed by Establishment figures from Barack Obama to Gavin Newsom to Kamala Harris and Andrew Cuomo.

Of course, we must move much more quickly. But in planning a path forward, through fire, California cannot wait, or hope, for climate action—for a Green New Deal, electrified everything, and global decarbonization. For one thing, it would take too long — the climate impacts of even extremely aggressive global decarbonization, scientists believe, won’t be even observable for decades. Until then, all else being equal, warming will worsen, and the fires of the American West, presumably, will too. If the fires of 2020 horrify you, as they should, consider that by 2050, when the benefits of fast climate action will only begin to arrive, the area burned annually in the West is expected to have at least doubled, and perhaps quadrupled.

That isn’t to say nothing can be done. It can. As fire scientists have been arguing now for decades, the fire-suppression approach to forest management that dominated the 20th century — fighting fires wherever they arose, preventing forests from “recycling” themselves — has proven a catastrophic failure, producing an unmanageable amount of what scientists call “fuel” and the rest of us would call simply “dead trees.” (It is on top of that fuel load, totaling more than 100 million dead trees, that the additional fuel produced by droughts and heat waves is added.) In the mouths of climate skeptics, or Donald Trump, blaming forest management can sound like an evasion, which it is — over recent decades, climate change has extended wildfire season by two months, quintupled the amount of flammable forest, and driven a doubling, at least, of acreage burned. According to one estimate, across the western U.S. as a whole, burn area has grown 900 percent since just 1984. And it’s no accident, or coincidence, that three of the four biggest fires in California history are burning in the immediate aftermath of a historic heat wave, in which what may be the highest temperature ever recorded on planet Earth was registered in Death Valley: 129.9 degrees Fahrenheit. The last time the planet was as hot as it is today was more than 100,000 years before the birth of agriculture.

But one reason “forest management” sounds like an evasion is because it also sounds doable — small, manageable, marginal, a matter of “clearing brush,” perhaps removing eucalyptus from your backyard. In fact, the need for what’s called “controlled burning,” to thin the state’s supply of “fuel” without risking damage to life or property, is so large it would dwarf anything humans have ever seen before. In January, a team of scientists offered an authoritative estimate for how much of the state would have to be burned under human supervision to stabilize its fire ecology: 20 million acres. That is just in California, which typically accounts for only about 10 percent of wildfire in the American West, and it would mean burning approximately one-fifth of the state — an area about the size of Maine. It’s more than seven times the amount that has burned so far this year, by some margin the worst year on record. As Liz Weil has documented for ProPublica, it is also, given state resources and public uneasiness with nearby fire, impossibly more controlled burning than is conducted today —even with growing alarm and a growing consensus, not just among scientists, that much more aggressive forest management is necessary. “Between 1982 and 1998,” she writes, “California agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year” — about two-tenths of one percent of those needed 20 million acres. “Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres” — less than one-tenth of one percent. “The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning,” she writes. “But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog.” A proposal by Governor Newsom called for the cleaning up of just 100,000 acres; a more ambitious proposal, from state and local officials, aims for 1 million acres — just 5 percent of what’s required.

“California is built to burn,” the fire historian Stephen Pyne once told me. “It is built to burn explosively.” And indeed, many thousands of years ago, millions of acres would burn there each year. But while there is wisdom in the indigenous approach to controlled burning that somewhat governed the region for centuries, and future fire planning can and should draw on it, the population of the state before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas was well under a million, and perhaps under 200,000. Today, it is 40 million, almost all of them living in communities defined by much more sprawl into what is called, not just by scientists but also by locals, the “wildland-urban interface.” If you are rooting for a return to a truly “natural” fire regime in the state, you are rooting against almost everything that is life in California today.

In this way, even beyond the immediate threat of their flames and the eerie contagion of their smoke, the new California fires offer a threefold prophecy about our climate future. First, however much we do to stabilize the world’s climate, it will not stop the burning any time soon. Second, it isn’t that the land itself, or the ecology of the region, can’t survive climate change, but that the conditions of habitability on which we have erected whole sprawling, demanding, often unjust civilizations are being shaken — in some places, already quite profoundly, with comparatively little warming. And third, we not only have the hard work of stabilizing our climate future through rapid decarbonization ahead of us, but also the work of adapting and responding to the new world already made inevitable by warming, particularly for the communities, disadvantaged and marginalized, who always stand most clearly in the path of climate impacts like wildfire.

Take housing: In California, more than 60 percent of new residential development in the state since 1990 has been in wildfire-prone areas — housing for those who can’t afford to live in the dense regions like greater Los Angeles and the Bay Area — and more than 1 million buildings in the state are already vulnerable, given wildfire conditions in the state today. Across the American West, one study found that 32 million homes were built in the wildland-urban interface between 1990 and 2015. These building patterns, long expected to continue and even accelerate, must stop — and though it remains scary to say it — perhaps even reverse, if the next generations of Americans are to feel truly safe in their homes and not terrorized by the threat of fire. In parts of the West, there has been some limited movement, including stricter safety regulations on new homes in dangerous areas, for instance, and a general new urbanist embrace of housing density. But in California, where the threats are bleakest and the housing market most pinched, the lesson has not yet been learned — perhaps because the threat of wildfire has been normalized; or for reasons of old-fashioned liberal NIMBYism; or the reflexive patterns of American suburban sprawl, with its culture of single-family homes and car-oriented living; or perhaps even because Californians like to believe their state is a little dangerous. The state’s modest housing reform bill SB50, designed to alleviate California’s broader housing crisis and championed by state senator Scott Weiner, has failed multiple times for the sin of requiring merely some amount of density, paltry by the standards of the East Coast, around California’s transit hubs.

A politics of genuine climate protection would prove many times more invasive, and disruptive — not to even mention climate-based relocation. What is required is probably “a radical rethinking of how and where we live,” climate economist Gernot Wagner writes. “Perhaps the suburban dream has always been just that: a dream that can only remain without consequences as long as we stay asleep at the wheel.” And if our politics is moving too slowly, in California and elsewhere, warming isn’t slowing down to match it— indeed, as the unprecedented burn rate of the Bear Fire shows, precisely the opposite. “Just like coastal risk — for many, it’s time to retreat,” climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer wrote on Twitter Thursday, reflecting on the fires. “What would the cost be? What’s the cost of NOT retreating?”

*This article appears in the September 14, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

California Can’t Afford to Wait for Climate Action