California fires have burned some 4 million acres. How to protect people and property

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The Glass Fire has destroyed numerous structures in Napa and Sonoma county since it ignited early Sunday morning. Remnants of homes rest on the hill of the Skyhawk neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez/The Salinas Californian via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Glass Fire has destroyed more than 100 homes and forced some 70,000 people in Napa and Sonoma Counties to evacuate. It’s just 5% contained as of this morning.

This year has been full of natural disasters for California: record temperatures, hazardous air, and the worst fire season ever. The fires have collectively burned nearly 4 million acres in California. That’s roughly the size of Connecticut.

“It’s been, even by recent standards, a really terrible fire season,” says UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. “And of course those recent standards are a pretty high bar, considering that in the past few years, we’ve seen these catastrophic fires in Paradise, in Santa Rosa, in Malibu and other places.”

Cal Fire reports all but three of the 20 largest wildfires in California have happened in the past 20 years. Five of them have sparked since August.

Some scientists say in the future, people may look back on 2020 as a good year. Swain is among them. He says, “Unfortunately I do think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. So I don’t think this is the true worst case scenario yet, as bad as it is.”

He continues, “I’m pretty sure that we’ll see years in the future, in a warmer climate … we will see even larger swaths of land burn in California than this year.”

However, he’s optimistic that over the next decade or so, scientists will get a handle on the destructiveness of fires. “Even if we see more land burned in fires in the coming years, we don’t necessarily have to see more homes burned or more people killed.”

Does that mean using more prescribed burns to protect property and people? Swain says, “The notion of reintroducing lower intensity good fire on the landscape in a lot of places does hold a lot of promise. Because it’s something that can be done on the local or the state level, and could be implemented over a matter of just a few years if there’s enough motivation and enough funding.”

Another intervention is rethinking designs, Swain says. “The broader solution is thinking about how you can sort of retrofit existing communities and existing buildings. And also when you are rebuilding in the wake of a fire, we definitely shouldn’t be making the same mistakes that we made historically.”

Credits

Guest:
Daniel Swain - climate scientist at UCLA who studies extreme weather events - @Weather_West

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Caleigh Wells, Angie Perrin