Scientists say widespread wildfires can make global warming worse
Washington Post, October 20, 2015 7:26pm
In not much more than a month, leaders from around the world will assemble in Paris in order to — hopefully — find a way to cap the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and bring them down to safe levels.
But there’s a problem. There are some greenhouse gas sources that these leaders can’t fully control — and in some cases, reasons to think that these sources may grow in the future. The point is being driven home this year by raging peat fires in Indonesia, which have already contributed more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions to the atmosphere — as much as Japan produces in a year from fossil fuels.
Indonesia isn’t the only part of the world where fires — which in many areas are expected to be worsened by climate change — could provide a new net source of emissions to the atmosphere. Another region of major worry is the world’s boreal or northern forests, which store a gigantic amount of carbon in trees as well as soils and frozen permafrost layers beneath the surface. Permafrost is a repository of carbon that has accumulated over many thousands of years, but could now be released back to the atmosphere on a much shorter time scale.
Alaska’s dramatic wildfire season this year — where more than 5 million acres of largely black spruce forests burned — raised great concerns about how events such as this could make global warming worse. The fear here is of a sort of triple whammy — forests release the carbon stored in trees back to the atmosphere when they burn; the forests contain a deep upper soil layer that also burns off, releasing more carbon; and finally, beneath all of that is the carbon rich permafrost, which becomes exposed after fires and can then thaw and start to emit.
And now, a new study in Nature Climate Change reaffirms these concerns about the emissions of northern fires. The study, led by Ryan Kelly of the University of Illinois at Urbana, looked at a particular Alaskan region that has seen intensive burning of late — the remote Yukon Flats. The researchers confirmed that the recent fires have been releasing much of the carbon that has been stored up over hundreds of years.
In addition, the researchers also determined that over time, change in fires patterns were by far the largest factor in how much carbon the ecosystem stored.
The new research reaffirms that fire is a powerful determinant of how much carbon resides in land, rather than in the air, across our globe.
By C.W. Nevius and Peter Fimrite , August 6, 2015 12:54 PM
CLEARLAKE, Lake County — The imminent danger from the devastating Rocky Fire in Lake County diminished Thursday and hundreds of residents began to return to their evacuated homes, but Gov. Jerry Brown made clear in a visit to the area that California is still in danger.
Brown traveled to the scorched hillside at Cowboy Camp, just off fire-ravaged Highway 20, and, as helicopters circled nearby, said the fire illustrates that climate change is both real and destructive.
“California is burning,” he said. “What the hell are you going to do about it?
“This is a wake-up call. We have to start coming to our senses. This is not a game of politics. We need to limit our carbon pollution. These are real lives and real people. This problem cannot be solved year by year.”
Nearly 3,600 firefighters have been fighting the fire, which was 45 percent contained Thursday and had burned 69,600 acres. Full containment is expected by late next week, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection began letting roughly 800 of the more than 1,400 people who had been evacuated back into their homes.
Evacuation orders were lifted in the Wilbur Springs area on the northeastern side of the fire, off Highway 20. Only residents with identification will be allowed access to Wilbur Springs Road, near the border between Lake and Colusa counties, Cal Fire officials said. Residents on the south side of the fire, east of Highway 29 to West Jerusalem Valley Road, were also allowed to return home, officials said.
Still more evacuees, forced from their homes in the Spring Valley area, would probably be allowed back Friday morning, officials said.
Highways 16 and 20 remained closed Thursday except for a small portion of Highway 20 at Wilbur Springs, which is accessible only coming from the east off Interstate 5, officials said.
“Weather conditions across California are significantly improved compared to last week,” said Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesman, who warned that the relief could be just a temporary phenomenon. He said weather forecasters are “expecting changing weather conditions over the next couple of days, with thunder systems moving in across Northern California.”
Red-flag warnings have been issued for dry lightning and gusting winds over the next couple of days, he said.
Brown received a briefing from officials overseeing the blaze, which has been burning for more than a week in Lake County and has spread to Yolo and Colusa counties. Forty-three homes have been destroyed and thousands of others threatened, and hundreds of local residents remained evacuated from their homes Thursday, according to Cal Fire.
While veteran firefighters said their efforts were business as usual, many stressed that this year’s blazes are out of the norm. The persistent drought, extremely hot weather and blustery winds all have the feel of something new and more dangerous.
“We are now in an extreme weather event,” Brown cautioned. “This is not the way these fires usually behave. If it continues year after year, California can literally burn up.”
Brown said he had talked to a resident who said he not only lost his home but also would find it difficult to rebuild because he had no insurance. Apparently, that’s not unusual. Insurance carriers sometimes decline to cover property in the steep, wooded canyons in the area.
The Rocky Fire is so pervasive that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District warned Thursday that smoke from the wildfires might impact areas in Marin, Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. Air quality, however, is expected to be in the “good” or “low moderate” categories and is not expected to exceed air quality health standards.
Although climate change can be a hot-button political issue, Brown continues to use the California fires as an object lesson for climate change deniers. This isn’t theory, he said, gesturing to the moonscape scene behind him.
“This is credible enough to change some minds,” he said.
Mark Repetto, a firefighter from Sacramento’s Metro Fire Department, said the fire was a perfect storm of the worst conditions.
“Hot, dry and windy,” Repetto said. “Today is a little cooler, which means the humidity is higher. Monday the humidity was in the teens. That and hot weather pre-heat the fuel. It’s already hot before the fire gets there.”
Surge still possible
Although fire officials predict the Rocky Fire will be fully contained by next week, another hot, windy, low-humidity day could easily spark another fiery surge. Along Highway 20, hot spots still sent up plumes of smoke.
Brown said the worst is yet to come.
“We have people acting like (if the Rocky Fire is contained) it’s the end,” he said. “Unfortunately, we know that historically August and September are worse than July. So fasten your seat belt.”
Over the weekend, Cal Fire reported more than 100 dry-lightning-sparked fires in remote reaches of Northern California. In Humboldt County alone, 75 blazes have burned more than 4,000 acres since July 31, with just 35 percent containment reported Thursday.
The cause of the Rocky Fire has not been determined. Fire officials fear lightning could prompt additional lands to burn and complicate the suppression effort.
Conditions around California are ripe for a lightning fire after four dry years, said Daniel Swain, a Stanford University researcher studying climate.
“Things will ignite even if they get a little water from the storm,” Swain said. “This is a concern over the next 48 hours.”
San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Hamed Aleaziz and Kurtis Alexander contributed to this report. C.W. Nevius and Peter Fimrite are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.