Artificial Paradise Lost – California Fires

Just a month ago the first thing that would strike you as you drove or walked around Paradise, California was the dominant color of green.

Streets were overhung with trees everywhere adding to the ambiance that truly made this community of 25,000 seem like a literal paradise.

Today, of course, nothing remains but charred remains and cadaver dogs leading their handlers to bodies in cars and under charred remains of homes interspersed with a few intact buildings.

forest fire trees burning - paradise lost
Forest fire CCO license

Before burned out residents rush to rebuild it is perhaps time to pause a few moments to consider just what happened and whether it is a good idea to rebuild or at least to rebuild using flammable building materials and surround them with greenery which dries out to firewood at certain times.

The most obvious problem which was so for an observant stranger to spot is that all that green takes a vast quantity of water to stay green.

A Mediterranian Climate

The lush landscape was created in what is referred to as a Mediterranian or hot dry summer climate. I use the word “created” with precision and intentionally.

A Mediterranian climate is one where it rains some in the Winter but has very dry and very hot summers.

mediterranean wall and shrubs
Mediterranean climate fields

In the case of Paradise, California, the average Summer temperature for June, July, and August is in the 90’s.

But the rainfall total for Paradise averages less than 2 inches TOTAL for June, July, August, and September COMBINED! That’s right, for 120 days in a row, hardly a drop of water falls from the sky onto the parched ground and water-starved plants.

In fact, the rural area around Paradise looks a lot like the nearly treeless coast of North Africa.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by contrast, has an average of 34 trees per mile of street but in the hottest summer period which is 10 to 15 degrees cooler than Paradise, it also gets an average of 4-5 inches of rain each month so for the 120 day summer period which in Paradise gets about 2 inches total of rain, a cooler Pittsburgh gets nearly 20 inches. The Pittsburgh streets are pleasant enough, but compared to Paradise the city looks almost barren.

Older Google Maps photos of Paradise, CA by contrast show green everywhere. Many of the residential streets look like they had been driven through a forest as thick as that just a few miles East of Pittsburgh.

Why is California Green?

If you weren’t aware of why the state looks like it does today then, as you drive around the pleasant green towns, it might look as if California’s vast forests are perfectly natural but in reality, much of that green space is due to a vast human effort. California now has more trees than at any time in the last 12,000 years when the climate was drying out to the current conditions at the end of the Pleistocene.

In actuality, much of California, especially the area plagued with yearly forest fires today looked very different back in 1818. In the 1800s the southern part of California would have been a sea of brown in the summer, just as it had been for thousands of years.

What happened? Was there a drastic change in the climate? Did rainfall increase a vast amount for a century and just recently dried up?

No, actually. Today’s California looks as it does because after the gold rush and surging economy tens of millions of trees were planted in what was essentially semi-arid verging on desert climate.

The natural biome in most of California south of San Francisco is known as Chaparral in the U.S., maquis in the Mediterranian, and mallee or kwongan shrublands where they are found in far southwest Australia. There aren’t a lot of trees which use prodigious amounts of water, small shrubs capable of going with far less water during heat waves are much more common.

Now, when it is dry, hot, and there are high winds in California, started with just a spark, within hours Paradise burns – any questions?

It is right to feel sorry for the many displaced people in California today, extending them sympathy and assistance today.

But how much compassion will they deserve in 2030 if they rebuild the same way, replant trees, and are burned out again as they certainly would be?

Is it time for humans with government encouragement (or enforcement) to begin to build more in coordination with than in competition with nature?

This situation in California isn’t due to any climate change, or, if it is, the change is only a very minor component of the disaster.

The situation in today’s California is simply mother nature taking her course as the land becomes overloaded with human occupants using up more and more of the precious and rare water resources both by consuming it directly in homes, farms, and industry and indirectly by growing plants not suitable for the climate.

If you want to live in a lush green environment shouldn’t you simply move to one rather than attempt to create one in a desert?

Los Angeles began its vast expansion with the film industry and that exploded precisely because it seldom rained so there was plenty of sunlight and dry weather back when movies were made outdoors or in roofless studios open to the direct sun.

That was great for the one industry, but not so good for people living on the hills and in the valleys surrounding LA.

President Trump Chimed In

President Trump was correct if more than a little unfeeling when he immediately said that the situation in California was due to poor forest management.

That’s true, but far from simple.

Forest management is a major problem in CA but not because people don’t know what is needed.

Proper forest management means letting small fires burn, not having millions of people living in the forest, and not diverting so much water to make a desert green and lush.

The immediate cause of the terrible fires was the heat and wind – probably the hottest year ever in California. (And, of course, whatever triggered the first flame but something ALWAYS sparks a flame eventually.)

The speed with which a tiny fire spread was due to mismanagement.

The disaster was due to overbuilding, a triad of causes.

But won’t this just keep happening? After all, the areas flooded by the Mississippi are regularly rebuilt. Areas of New Orleans below sea level are being rebuilt. People always rebuild summer homes on barrier islands regularly destroyed by hurricanes.

Can people change unless forced to by government regulation and building codes? After all, people actually live on the slopes of active volcano knowing they or their kids will eventually be killed by an eruption. See Vesuvius, Naples, and Pompeii.