As I sit here in my Imperial Beach seaside office, I almost feel disconnected from the fire crisis in the rest of San Diego County. The wind is blowing slightly out of the west. The sun is out. The clouds of ash in the sky have diminished. For the third day in a row the surf is absolutely perfect — roping south swell barrels with minimal crowd.

But of course the real tragedy lies north and just to the east. More than 500,000 people evacuated, 2,000 structures destroyed, scores of injuries and at least six deaths and close to 300,000 acres in flame from Tecate to Malibu. The crazy and continually changing nature of Santa Ana winds contribute to the inability of firefighters to combat the fires. On Sunday afternoon when the fires first began, the wind must have shifted in Imperial Beach every 10 minutes.

There are shelters and locations for the evacuees although mega traffic jams have impeded quick exits from many areas and the Los Angeles Times reported that many of the lessons that should have been implemented from the Cedar Fire were ignored (I’ll cover that in my next blog). I watched Matt Lauer interview Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Today Show, and the governor looked and sounded good and exuded compassion, concern and leadership.

The real story of course is not just this fire, our second mega-fire in four years, but the changing nature of the ecology of our region that results in these man-made tragedies. Accelerated urban growth in fire-prone areas combined with strong Santa Anas and prolonged drought conditions makes San Diego along with Atlanta and New Orleans the poster cities for the negative consequences of global climate change.

At least San Diego understands it has a fire problem. In today’s New York Times, Atlanta authorities are blaming their water crisis due to the worst ever recorded drought, on the water needs of several endangered species.

Research on the causes of southern California fires has been fairly extensive, with the United States Geological Survey publishing research on the historical nature of fires in our region.

Dr. Jon Keeley, a USGS fire researcher and his colleague, C. J. Fotheringham of the University of California, Los Angeles, found that although fire suppression is critical to protect homes, buildings and other structures, fire suppression does not prevent large wildland fires in southern California shrublands because these fires usually occur with powerful Santa Ana winds that blow at high speeds from the desert to the coast. In the present fire, hot Santa Ana winds of over 60 mph greatly increased the intensity and the movement of the fire. Since 1910, chaparral fires have become more frequent as the human population has grown but fire size has not increased. One of the largest fires in Los Angeles County (60,000 acres) occurred in 1878, and the largest fire in Orange County’s history, in 1889, was over half a million acres. The greater financial cost of fires today is most likely the result of constant urban expansion into areas subject to frequent burning.

On Sunday night Scott Pelley of CBS’s 60 Minutes did an excellent job covering the issue of mega-fires and climate change. He interviewed Tom Swetnam a University of Arizona dendrochronologist and expert on fire ecology in the southwest. He also spent time on a fire line in Idaho with Tom Boatner who is chief of fire operations for the federal government.

Swetnam found recent decades have been the hottest in 1,000 years. And recently, he and a team of top climate scientists discovered something else: a dramatic increase in fires high in the mountains, where fires were rare. ” The fire season in the last 15 years or so has increased more than two months over the whole Western U.S. So actually 78 days of average longer fire season in the last 15 years compared to the previous 15 or 20 years,” Swetnam says.

Swetnam says that climate change — global warming — has increased temperatures in the West about one degree and that has caused four times more fires. Swetnam and his colleagues published those findings in the journal “Science,” and the world’s leading researchers on climate change have endorsed their conclusions. “As fires continue to burn, these mega-fires continue to burn, we may see ultimately a majority, maybe more than half of the forest land converting to other forest, other types of ecosystems,” Swetnam says.

“You know, there are a lot of people who don’t believe in climate change,” Pelley remarks. “You won’t find them on the fire line in the American West anymore,” Tom Boatner says. “‘Cause we’ve had climate change beat into us over the last ten or fifteen years. We know what we’re seeing, and we’re dealing with a period of climate, in terms of temperature and humidity and drought that’s different than anything people have seen in our lifetimes.”

Maybe just maybe, Mayor Jerry Sanders and rest of his do-nothing and see-nothing team will become national leaders on the issue of combating climate change. Probably they won’t. It is too bad because Schwarzenegger made it very clear in his interview this morning that climate change has played a major role in increasing the length of the fire season.

With one of the driest years and worst droughts in recorded history in San Diego, now would be the time to change our course in order to take advantage of what Thomas Friedman calls “the power of green.”


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