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Editorial: Climate change report shows strong increase in wildfires

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“Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all.” – William Shakespeare

Odd as it seems, the most unsettling finding in the California Climate Change Assessment study released this week isn’t the assertion that wildfire will increase in the state by a walloping 77 percent by 2100.

It’s that the 77 percent will likely scorch the same areas of Sonoma County time and again over the next 80 years – and, unless effective climate-change mitigation takes place, there may be very little we can do about it.

The California Climate Change Assessments are a series of periodic studies, first commissioned by the state in 2006, to produce scientific analyses on the impacts of climate change in the state and offer potential “adaptation” responses to such potentially affected areas as temperature, water, agriculture, sea-level rise, among others.

The latest assessment, the first issued since 2012, reports several alarming projections – most notably an increase in average temperature between 5.6 and 8.8 degrees by 2100. As a comparison, the 2012 assessment predicted a 1.8- to 2.4-degree increase in temperature. For those doing the math, the time has clearly never been better to invest in misting-fan futures.

Other eyebrow-raising adjustments since 2012 include the loss of water from snowpack – what was predicted six years ago to be a 60 percent loss by 2100 is now targeted at 66 percent by 2050.

As 1970s armchair philosophers ABBA put it, “The heat is on -- and you know you’re in the hands of fate.”

An addition since the last report is the inclusion of an assessment of climate change impacts on “wildfire,” a reflection that the unprecedented amount of fires ravaging throughout the state the past three years is being proliferated in some part by climate change. The assessment notes that, “as of 2018, six of the top 20 most destructive fires in California history (in terms of buildings lost) have occurred in the Bay Area.”

And four of those – the Valley, Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires – have occurred in or adjacent to Sonoma County within the past three years. This summer’s Mendocino Complex fire, which has burned more then 450,000 acres since June, has surely cemented a place on the next assessment’s list.

The report points out that the previous peak year for Bay Area wild fire – 1964 – had “eerily similar” perimeters to the 2017 North Bay fires, yet the latter conflagrations burned more than twice the area of the blazes of ’64. Another notable wildfire in the Valley occurred in 1923 and also followed a similar path.

The report says that climate change affects “fire regimes” in two primary ways: the accumulation of dry vegetation and through changes in fire-season length and severity.

“Recent studies demonstrate that fire exhibits a ‘hump-shaped’ response to human development,” continues the assessment. “With fire activity peaking in the wildland-urban interface…”

In other words, fires spike at the point where development bumps up against open space. Which comes as a surprise to pretty much no one who resides in Glen Ellen or Kenwood, or Lovall Valley or Schellville, or any other Sonoma area that was licked by flames last October.

Thus, the report concluded, “Future fire activity will be driven as much by changes in human development as by changes in climate.” It’s a crucial finding for Sonoma, in particular, as three seats on the City Council are in the mix in the Nov. 6 election, and a top priority for the city in the next four years will be an update of its General Plan – where the community and elected leaders will consider changes to the urban growth boundary and outlying areas will no doubt be brought up for annexation consideration.

As the assessment says, any development that expands outward toward wildland “will likely dampen fire probabilities” in areas closer to downtown. However, on the flip side, it would therefore increase fire risk into the Sonoma outlands – where fire fuel is dry and getting dryer.

With temperatures and fire probabilities increasing at the rates the Climate Change Assessment predicts, those issues need to be at the forefront as Sonoma cast their ballots this year and we head toward a meaningful discussion of the General Plan and the future of growth in Sonoma.

As the assessment reminds us: “Local human development is under society’s direct control.”

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.