If you haven’t noticed – and it’s bit hard not to – we’ve been going about our basic routines for more than a month while the gigantic bowl known as the Great Central Valley that we live in has been blanketed by smoke.
Rest assured all of the expensive greenhouse gas reduction gains California has made have gone up in smoke. But before anyone starts dismissing efforts to clean our air as being an exercise in futility, take your lungs back to 1990.
On summer days when the air was still, temperatures were above 90 and the number of vehicles jamming the roads were easily half today’s number, you could not see the Diablo Range and the Altamont Hills from this side of the San Joaquin River.
Imagine what the combination of 1980s era summer air pollution and smoke from raging wildfires would be like. Visibility would likely plummet to several miles at best even at high noon on a cloudless day. It would be akin to the Valley’s unique and thick Tule fog. But instead of consistent refrigerator like temperatures remaining in the 40s day and night, we’d be baking in 100-degree heat.
While shifting to solar and wind power may not be the best answer or even 100 percent possible from either an energy sustainability or reliability standpoint, it certainly makes sense to make both as large a part of our energy portfolio as it is effectively possible to do so.
It is clear that solar, even with battery storage, has its limitations. And that’s true whether it is cloud cover or endless smoke days. If we relied heavily on solar to power California on a day like today how many air conditioners and air scrubbers would be silent?
Against today’s smoky backdrop, there are alarmists who have latched onto the California Department of Forestry and Fire warning that many of the wildfires now burning will do so until December.
They see the assertion as another sign of the modern-era political definition of climate change.
But the science – and history – shows great wildfires would burn in the Great Central Valley and surrounding mountains and hills until the first rains arrived long before John C. Fremont or the Hudson Bay Company made their way to this part of the continent.
And if you’ve lived in the Valley long enough, you’d know the first rains of any quantity do not usually roll around until December.
Fires sparked by lightning and occasionally cooking fires and such that got away from indigenous people scarred the landscape and consumed hundreds of square miles.
That said, the Caldor Fire and similar blazes that are rapidly consuming large swaths of wildlands were likely rare more than 300 years ago.
The Caldor Fire has consumed over 126,182 acres. On Aug. 25 it was only 11 percent contained.
The heavy fuel loads are the result of aggressively firefighting due to more than 150 years of building “permanent” civilizations in the Sierra combined with drought conditions.
Droughts are not a modern phenomenon in California or the western United States. Science in the form of dendrochronology – the study of tree rings – coupled with carbon dating clearly establishes that in the past 2,000 years or so snippet of the earth’s existence mega-droughts spanning 50 to 200 years were the norm.
Those mega-droughts are punctured with brief periods of a year or so or normal or above average wet years. It is why hydrologists are noting the Colorado River Basin is now on its 20th year of a mega-drought.
There is no denying we have climate change.
Climate change has been a driving force of life and the destruction thereof for the past 4.54 billion years of the earth’s existence. At the same time how crummy the Central Valley got from carbon emissions and how much it has been cleaned over the past 50 years is proof man can help move the climate change needle.
Understanding natural climate change and mankind’s role in climate change is key to the pursuit and implementation of the most cost efficient and most effective measures to reduce manmade impacts.
In order to live, man will impact the climate. The goal needs to pursue the most effective courses of action balanced against the fact that humans — just like any other species — is going to impact the environment simply by the act of living.
The Caldor and Dixie fires underscore what happens when we populate areas in a manner that was not conducive for the first 5,800 years of the roughly 6,000 years of human civilization.
Large scale permanent civilizations in places like the Sierra did not exist 200 years ago.
The indigenous people migrated between summer and winter homes in the valley and mountains. They did not have Safeway stores at 5,000 feet to go searching for food in the dead of winter. Nor did they have faucets they could turn on to water vegetable gardens on the valley floor in the heat of August. Nor did they have propane tanks to help stay warm on 20-degree days when the Sierra is in the depth of winter and buried under snow or air conditions to make a 105-degree bearable in Lathrop.
They went where the food was so they could gather or hunt. They also moved between habitable areas based on the weather.
And they did not have full time firefighting agencies that snuffed out most lighting triggered fires. Nature’s way of rebirthing and keeping forests healthy is by fire. Man’s version for more than a century has been to put out those fires long before they run their course in order to protect areas within forests we have civilized or to secure future wood for the purpose of expanding civilization.
It is clear — at least in terms of mega fires —the best way to dial back their growing occurrence is to change our development patterns.
It is why the frank talk regarding “climate change” that must take first and foremost when it comes to wildfires and drought in California is not greenhouse gas emissions but development patterns.
We are approaching the outer limits of how much growth we can sustain in basins relying on imported water from other basins. At the same time we need to thin our forests not just of fuel burning loads but of the intrusion of permanent housing that triggered the need for aggressive firefighting tactics.
Addressing those two issues will have a bigger impact on our water supply and ability to avoid mega wildfires than likely all of the measures being pushed to combat climate change combined.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or 209 Multimedia Corporation.