I stepped outside my home in Santa Barbara last month and, to my surprise, white flakes dusted the ground. Though it was 70 degrees in December, as an East Coast transplant, I couldn’t help but think: snow.
But winter in Southern California is a mild summer most anywhere else; it’s almost never cloudy and it definitely never snows. It turned out that the sky’s eerie haze had been painted by a smoke plume from the Thomas Fire – now the largest fire in state history – as it burned about 30 miles south in Ventura. The white-grey flecks on my porch were ash particles, raining from the plume.
Just as I’m getting used to 70-degree temperatures and constant sunshine, I’m struggling to make sense of California’s erratic and increasingly devastating patterns of extreme weather -- patterns that are being affected in real-time by climate change. Events like the Thomas Fire are certainly more likely to occur in California than New Jersey, but even still, the wildfires this year were record-breaking.
And they’re especially unusual given the time of year. The region’s winter climate is usually too wet from fall rains to spark anything like the series of firestorms that sprinkled ash on my front porch. Even factoring in the powerful Santa Ana winds that sent flames jumping across Highway 101 like hopscotch, the ferocity and speed of the Thomas Fire shocked locals and out-of-staters alike.
I returned to Santa Barbara in late December, relieved to return to familiar blue skies and healthy, clean air. Then a couple weeks later, the siren of a mobile phone alert jolted me awake at 4 AM: “FLASH FLOOD WARNING.”
Apparently, to live in the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains means being prepared for mudslides following heavy rains. The late-season megafires heightened that risk. Wildfires destabilize hillsides and reduce the soil’s ability to soak up rainfall – a recipe for disastrous mudflows. In the wake of the Thomas Fire, mudslides in the neighboring town of Montecito killed at least 20 people and injured over two dozen.
Scientists have told us for decades that climate change is likely to worsen extreme weather events. There’s evidence that climate change is extending California’s fire season into the winter months, and it’s predicted that these winter fires will only become more common in the future. Drier winds, more atmospheric heat that dissolves summer cloud cover and greater fluctuations between drought years and wet years are all related to climate change. Natural disasters inflicted an estimated $306 billion in damage last year, more than the previous record of $215 billion in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina.
And as my first winter in California has shown, it’s not just individual extreme events we need to worry about: it’s the ability of extreme weather events to combine and build upon one another in new and devastating ways. It’s yet another wake-up call that should drive us to reduce our use of fossil fuels and embrace clean, low-carbon sources of energy like solar and wind power.