Massive Drought in California Threatens Wildfire Season
Last year, California had its worst-ever wildfire season with an astonishing 4.4 million acres burned, more than double the previous record. Unfortunately for Californians, experts believe potential conditions exist for an even more destructive wildfire season this summer.
Some early indicators, such as snowpack at 15% of the state’s average for this time of year, suggest a massive drought will provide conditions for destructive and fast-moving wildfires to rip through the state.
“I think, unfortunately, as bad as things have been recently, this year looks like another year that has some really ugly potential,” Daniel Swain, a leading climate scientist at UCLA and the Nature Conservancy, told KQED.
According to the United States Drought Monitor, more than half the state is in an extreme drought, the second-highest drought category. So far this year, embattled Governor Gavin Newsom has only declared two counties, Sonoma and Mendocino, to be in a drought emergency.
These drought conditions do not mean a horrible wildfire season is certain, but with some bad luck, such as last year, the conditions are in place for another bad wildfire season.
While we are very early into the year in terms of wildfires, Cal Fire indicates that 3,531 acres have burned as of May 2more than double what occurred in the same timeframe last year.
California’s dire drought conditions have caused climate scientists to ask if this can even be considered a drought anymore; perhaps it is now the new climate for the region.
Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, water issues think tank, told The Guardian, “these are not accidental, strange dry periods. They’re increasingly the norm.”
Official figures show that many of the worst wildfire seasons have been in recent years. On top of the devastating 2020 fires, the next four biggest wildfire years were 2007, 2008, 2017, and 2018, all with more than 1.5 million acres burned.
While the impacts of climate change have fueled California and the West’s recent struggles with wildfires and extreme weather, rainfall levels have not actually decreased on average. The average annual rainfall has stayed fairly constant, but variability has increased with extremely wet and dry periods.
For example, February 2020 was the driest in 126 years of recordkeeping, but February 2019 was the third-wettest.
Rather than purely a function of dryness, California’s battle against drought is exacerbated by poor water management that cannot cope with the fluctuating precipitation caused by climate change.
The state of California relies on wet years to boost its water supplies after dry years, and due to poor water management, if those wet years are spaced too far apart, the consequences can be dire.
The raging wildfires of last year also do not bode well for the water and drought situation for the coming year. Previous to 2020, the four worst years for wildfires occurred in consecutive years, 2007 and 2008, and 2017 and 2018.
Water, the New Oil
California’s water woes are not exactly new, but climate change has drastically impacted states’ abilities to cope as water rights become a battlefield. Quite ominously, Vice President Kamala Harris, the former senator from California, said, “for years and generations, wars have been fought over oil. In a short matter of time, they will be fought over water.”
While Vice President Harris was referring to wars between nations, battles for water have been occurring in the western United States for years.
Agriculture is one of the biggest industries in the state and one that relies heavily on water. Big agricultural interests are pushing Governor Newsom to declare a statewide drought so that farms can access water reserves.
But commercial fishers fear the use of water reserves could irreparably damage fish and wildlife. The Sacramento Bee declared the water showdown between fishers and farmers could cause a “new war over California water.”
Environmentalists versus commercial interests, agriculture versus fishing, landowners upstream versus landowners downstream, there are a variety of competing interests that Governor Newsom is struggling to juggle.
And to potentially add fuel to the long-term climate crisis, water became a commodity in California in late 2020. The move allows commodity traders to invest in water futures, betting on whether the price of water will increase or decrease in drought-ridden California.
“It’s financial folks recognizing that water is going to be a hot commodity and they’re trying to figure out how to get in on it,” Eric Averett, general manager of the Rosedale Rio Bravo Water Storage District, said.
Increasing speculation and water as a vehicle for financial investment has already caused concern in California and other western states like Colorado. Water has also become a hot asset on Wall Street, with big names in the financial world jumping into the ring, looking to capitalize on drought woes.