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California’s Carr Fire Grows Larger and More Deadly

Climate
A deer stands on a road covered in flame retardant used to fight the Carr Fire. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

The Carr Fire, which blazed into the northern California town of Redding Thursday, has grown even larger and deadlier over the weekend, offering a fiery vision of California's future.


"This is climate change, for real and in real time. We were warned that the atmospheric buildup of man-made greenhouse gas would eventually be an existential threat," The Sacramento Bee wrote in an editorial about the fire Friday.

The fire, which doubled in size Saturday and is only 5 percent contained, has burned 89,194 acres since it sparked a week ago and has lead to six deaths, CNN reported Monday.

Those fatalities included 70-year-old Melody Bledsoe and her great-grandchildren Emily and James Roberts.

The three had been declared missing when their home went up in flames Thursday, and their deaths were confirmed Saturday.

"With a heavy heart we are sad to inform you all that Mel and the great-grandbabies were confirmed to be in the home," surviving family members wrote on a GoFundMe page, as reported by CNN.

Another civilian was also found dead in a house and two people died fighting the fire: Redding fire department Jeremy Stoke and an unnamed bulldozer operator whose death was also reported by EcoWatch Friday.

"This fire is scary to us. This is something we haven't seen before in the city," Redding Police Chief Roger Moore told reporters Friday, according to CNN.

The fire has burned 517 structures and is being fought by 3,000 firefighters, CNN reported.

It has forced 38,000 to evacuate and President Donald Trump has pledged federal aid to affected counties, BBC News reported.

One factor that makes the Carr Fire particularly dangerous is the way that the flames are interacting with gail-force winds.

"This fire was whipped up into a whirlwind of activity" Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott told BBC News, "Uprooting trees, moving vehicles, moving parts of roadways."

These "firenado" conditions are similar to the ones that made last year's October wildfires in the northern Bay Area so deadly, The Sacramento Bee reported Friday.

Both fires were spurred on by high temperatures, high winds and dry vegetation. But while last year's fires were driven by winds of 60 miles per hour, the Carr Fire is driven by winds of 10 to 30 miles per hour, and the fire itself is creating its own stronger winds.

"These fire-induced winds were very strong and unpredictable and drove this fire from dry brush and trees into urban areas," University of Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain told The Sacramento Bee.

The dry vegetation is one reason why the 2018 California wildfire season has seen the most acreage burnt by July 9 in ten years, The Mercury News reported.

Dry vegetation is so plentiful because of all the plants killed by the 2012 to 2017 drought, as well as the fact that the winter of 2017-2018 was drier than normal.

"We are going to be dealing with the impacts of that drought for many years," Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean told The Mercury News.

Fire season, which used to begin in October, is also getting earlier and earlier because of global warming, The Sacramento Bee reported.

"We have these long, hot, dry summers that are getting progressively drier," Swain told The Sacramento Bee. "We're not at the end of summer yet."

In Friday's editorial, The Sacramento Bee urged the state to plan for this new normal by improving preparedness and evacuation warning systems, and by taking into account the way that fires are likely to exacerbate the state's housing shortage.

"California must plan now for these and other aspects of global warming, as more of the state becomes too hot, too dry, or too fire- or flood-prone to safely live in, and as more of the world braces for the era of climate refugees," the paper advised.

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California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.

The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."