14,000 Simultaneous Catastrophes: Climate Change in Paradise California, the Camp Fire 2018, Photo Tour
The fires for some reason are the worst, for me at least. Witnessing the fires hurts more than the dead forests, the eroded beaches, the desert mortality, the receding glaciers, the permafrost melt mayhem. Human’s losses just hurt more. Almost the entire town of Paradise burned to the ground. An entire town of 26,000, gone. Using even these astonishing wildfire numbers to describe the scene wildly understates the loss: 14,000 homes, 5,000 business and commercial buildings, 85 lives lost according to CAL FIRE, 104 according to the locals. (see here)
The climate change cause of this fire is indisputable, yet all we hear of the climate change relationship is at the most, the fire was “enhanced” by climate change. Yes, it was ignited by a power line in the wind. But the most important issue of our time is not what started the train of events that destroys humankind’s advanced civilization, it’s the destruction. It’s about the destruction that would not have happened if it were not for human-caused climate change.
Our first day was Sunday. Nobody was in Paradise, or so it seemed. Half of the burned homes and businesses had been scraped up and hauled away. The other half remained as they have remained since November 8, 2018. Rusted bent metal, cracked foundations, a few charred pieces of wood and some ashes. All surrounded by a mostly burned urban forest.
It was a town without houses. Some of the trees survived, but very few homes remain. Street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood, uptown, east side, west side; all the same. A vague sense of horror was everywhere.
Almost everything burned to the ground. Firefighters were incredibly overwhelmed by the speed and ferocity of the fire. Thankfully, no firefighters were lost. The CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) Green Sheet Report gives a clue to the ferocity of the firestorm. It burned seven miles in four hours, faster than most of us walk. (see here)
The Camp Fire was the most destructive wildfire in California history, following the previous most destructive wildfire the previous year, the Tubbs Fire in 2017. (see here) It claimed nearly three times as many lives as the next most disastrous wildfire. (see here)
The burned homes were lined up one after another. Thirteen of the twenty most destructive wildfires in California have occurred since 2007. It was the most costly world disaster in 2018 with $16.5 billion in losses and $12.5 billion insured. (see here)
The Camp Fire was ignited by an electrical transmission line failure caused by high winds, but it was climate change-caused record dry fuels plus the high winds that created this climate change catastrophe. Over 0.5 inches of rain had not fallen at one time in 200 days. The region was experiencing record low fuel dryness as described on page 4 of the CAL FIRE Green Sheet report for the incident. (see here)
The CAL FIRE Green Sheet Report described this new type of climate change conflagration, “When the fire reached the town of Paradise, an urban firestorm began to spread from building to building, independent of the vegetation, similar to the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany in 1943. In a significant number of locations in Paradise, (the) tree canopies are mostly intact above destroyed structures, indicating the strength of the wind in these areas. It is evident in many areas occupied by high densities of residential and commercial structures that the heat from the fire was transferred horizontally to other structures and ground vegetation by strong winds.” (see here)
We wandered the vacant streets shooting stills of the remains of 14,000 family’s lives. We talked to two of the hardy neighbors in a camper who were resolute in staying on their property and rebuilding. Yes they believed in climate change.
The California Department of Insurance reported there is an increasing trend of non-renewals across California because of extreme wildfire. This is leading to insurance availability issues, most importantly with those located in the wildland urban interface. Insurer-initiated homeowner policy non-renewals grew by 6% from 2017 to 2018 — in zip code areas devastated by the unprecedented 2015 and 2017 season it was 10%. They suggest that because 2018 was the worst yet wildfire season, and their numbers do not reflect the 2018 season, non-renewal will continue to grow at a rapid pace.
This fire was not caused by fuels buildup from wildfire suppression. Since 2008, 13 major wildfires have burned within the 153,000 acre footprint of the Camp Fire consuming about half the total land burned in the Camp Fire. (see here, and here)
Even with normal or above normal precipitation, warming creates drought. It‘s not drought as meteorologists define it though. Warming increases soil evaporation and plant water use nonlinearly (a little warming creates a lot of evaporation,) and warming creates a longer summer season as spring comes earlier and fall later, and because it’s hotter day and night with warming, all of these things mean less water remains in the soil. It’s apparent drought. Trees and plants don’t care how much precipitation falls, they care how much water remains in the soil.
The CAL FIRE Green Sheet had this to say about the unusually dry fuels, “It is very unusual to have fuel moisture levels so low in November within Butte County. 1000-hour fuel moisture levels measured at Pike County Lookout, located southeast of the fire, were at 5% on November 1, 2018. The average 1000-hour fuel moisture level in November is 17% for the Northern Sierras. Live fuel moisture of manzanita was measured at 74%. The critical live fuel moisture level for manzanita is 80% and the average live fuel moisture for manzanita in this area during November is 93%.
The lack of humans was as startling as the lack of buildings. The streets were empty. There was no grocery store, restaurants or fast food. One gas station had reopened, plus the CVS, a hardware store, a new tire store, and little else. A church and the high school were spared. Paradise had a population of about 26,000 in 2017.
What does one do in a real world holocaust when a wall of flame is bearing down upon them…
Our second day of witness was Monday and it seemed a legion of dump trucks and cleanup workers had materialized from the ether. Driving around Paradise was almost infinitely compounded by truck flaggers at every individual cleanup site as the line of thundering debris haulers moved slowly to and fro.
On the drive in, over 100 dump trucks passed us with their first load of the day headed to the landfill.
Today we spent in the commercial district, just as hard hit as the residential areas. The unburned billboard, obviously unburned, is a message to us all.
All that remained of the Kalico Kitchen.
We didn’t wander through the debris out of respect. The purpose of so many of the commercial establishments remained unclear to us because all signage was destroyed.
Capture these images was painful and emotionally stressful. It was invasive. Tragedy is personal. This is why personal climate impacts are so meaningful; why they have such a capacity to influence awareness.
The number at the bottom of the X means there were no fatalities at this location.
I have personally been flooded, and protected my home from wildfire on the roof with a waterhose with firefighters urgently asking me to leave. This is partly why I am bearing witness to this tragedy, so that we can bring the reality, the sorrow, the violence of climate change to the world, and enhance awareness about the most important issue our advanced civilization has ever faced.
The total number of catastrophic tragedies in Paradise and the small suburbs of Paradise numbered 19,531.
But numbers are worthless in sorrow.
These are courage rocks. I find them at every climate change disaster I have witnessed.
NASA LandSat image of the Camp Fire at 10:45 am as it engulfed Paradise. And btw, the Camp Fire was named after Camp Creek Road where it started.
Please tell your friends. The single best way that we can all make a difference is to talk about climate change. Psychologist have identified the phenomenon that has caused us to deny and delay. It is called the spiral of silence. By talking about it, our brains become better capable of thinking deeply. Without deep thought, our fear and our guilt create denial and delay. Please help end the spiral of silence by talking about climate change.
Reasons preventing climate change communications: Climate Change in the American Mind, Yale and George Mason University, March 2018.
Spiral of Silence – Psychology Today
Spiral of Silence – Wikipedia
As of Aug. 14, 2019, there have been 9,724 properties cleared of debris.
The county has certified 4,881 properties as “clean of debris.”
There have been 157 building permits issued