What the 2017 California Wildfires tell us about climate chaos
A giraffe lopes down a suburban street at midnight.
At 12:30 am, huge black pickups towing long, gleaming horse trailers fly eastward, flashing their headlights.
Men stand in the parking lot of a motel, glowing neon pink. They point, gesticulate, converse urgently. Black smoke cloaks the streetlamps and chokes the air, and devilish gusts of wind rip early autumn leaves from the trees. At 2:00 am, people drive about in their pajamas on streets clogged with rush hour traffic. Chaos reigns as my wife and I flee from a strange house and immense flames leap to the sky.
I want to wake up from this nightmare, but I can’t…because it’s real.
A few days before these events unfolded, I had told friends I was ready for a break. I had carefully followed the reports of four disastrous hurricanes and numerous wildfires in the West, and worked outdoors through an unprecedented heat wave at my Oregon home. Eager to get away from it all, my wife and I went to visit friends and family…in Santa Rosa, California.
Two days after we arrived there, a conflagration that will probably be dubbed “The Great Northern California Fire” (until there is a greater fire) broke out in the heavily wooded mountains on the east side of Napa Valley, about 30 miles east of Santa Rosa. It started around 9:45 pm on Sunday, Oct. 8, and by 11:30 pm, winds, gusting up to 70 miles per hour, had pushed it across the valley and over a second mountain range, into the city.
By that time, most people had gone to bed. But we were lucky. Returning after midnight to our Santa Rosa motel from a dinner party near Berkeley, an hour away, we saw the smoke, flames and surreal scenes described above. Thus, we had enough time to pack getaway bags and to awaken and alert some friends in a nearby neighborhood before speeding south to warn family members.
Many people, of course, were not lucky. Although relatively unknown nationally because of its “suburban” relationship to San Francisco, Santa Rosa is a full-scale city of 175,000, surrounded by numerous smaller, often charming communities in California’s rich wine country. As I write this, the fires engulfing the area have burned for a week; claimed at least 45 lives; destroyed 5,500 structures, mostly in Santa Rosa; engaged 10,000 firefighters and caused several billion dollars in damage.
Thick smoke laced with toxins from burning buildings pervades the air and has forced school closures in San Francisco, 50 miles to the south.
The firestorm’s connection to climate change is clear. As several California fire officials explained in a series of television interviews, the effects of five years of severe drought in the state were not mitigated by the record rainfalls last winter. In fact, the rains had the opposite effect: they triggered a burst of spring vegetation growth which, now that dry conditions and record temperatures have returned, simply added to the fuel loading of the presently desiccated landscape. When the fires began, there was no turning them back until the winds died down.
California Governor Jerry Brown added, “These kinds of catastrophes have happened, and they will continue to happen. That’s the way it is with a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture.”
“Climate change” is now manifesting as “climate chaos,” with frequent and unpredictable eruptions of superstorms, droughts, floods and wildfires — each as horrifying as it is capricious.
What does the future hold? If it resembles the midnight maelstrom in Santa Rosa, it “must be the season of the witch” at our ecological house.
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Postscript: Although Santa Rosa bore the brunt of the Fall, 2017 northern California fire outbreak — losing about 4,500 of 6,000 homes and other structures burned by late October — the fire explosion occurred through much of the northern part of the state, where hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlands and numerous rural communities and were affected. Here is an account of the situation through Oct. 14, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/14/us/california-fire-building-damage.html
Editor’s Note: This article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called Your Ecological House written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.