THE BASTROP FIRE COMPLEX
My birthday falls around Labor Day, and last year I asked Irene for an overnight in San Antonio as a present. We stayed at the historical Menger Hotel, saw the sights, ate delicious food, drank delicious drinks, and a fine time was had by all. But on the day we drove back, it seemed like the whole of Texas was on fire. Great clouds of smoke appeared from wildifres on the horizon in every direction as we drove up Interstate 35.
By far the most serious of them turned out to be the blaze in Bastrop Texas. On the worst day, its smoke was to shroud the city of Austin, 30 miles away, in reduced visibility and, I would say, a peculiarly evocative pine scent, the following day. Only two people died, but 1700 homes were destroyed, and a vast area remains desolate today.
In the months before the Bastrop County Complex fire, Texas was affected by a series of wildfires amid several distinct record-breaking meteorological conditions conducive to combustion. During 2011, Texas endured its most severe single-year drought since the 1950s, received the lowest single-year rainfall since 1895, and experienced the hottest June–August period of any U.S. state at any point in time on record—exceeding that of even the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Circumstances were further exacerbated by Tropical Storm Lee, which produced strong winds over the Labor Day weekend, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to spread. Between September 4 and September 6, reports indicated that 63 new fires were started. On September 6, the Texas Forest Service released a statement, describing the fire’s behavior as “unprecedented” and stating that “no one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions”
The Bastrop fire burned for four weeks.
2012: MISSING THE ONSET OF SUMMER
Continuing, if you’ll indulge me, with a personal perspective, I have been away for a month, in the chilly climes of Montreal for a week and then London. Both experienced uncommonly cool and rainy weather during my sojourns there. I’ve barely seen my shadow in a month.
Meanwhile, not to say coincidentally, the Arctic has reached an all-time observed minimum June ice cover. So it’s hard not to get back to Broecker’s original “angry beast” scenario: freshening of the Arctic surface diverting the Gulf Stream southward, swinging the northern Atlantic into a cool regime while the rest of the world warms.
When I left, Texas had come off a relatively hopeful spring, not the nicest Spring Texas has seen but far from the worst. The weather had been lovely, a bit on the warm side, but with a decent amount of rainfall, and Texas crawled slowly out drought. On my travels, I didn’t pay much attention to the weather in Texas until Tuesday, the day of my return.
On Tuesday it hit 109 at Camp Mabry.
It was noticed here as the hottest day ever recorded in the calendar month of June. Perhaps the nation was distracted by the fact that part of Kansas had hit 115 on the same day.
So I looked at the drought map last night, and was more than a little taken aback. The somewhat abated situation in Texas is now matched by drought in all but perhaps four states in the southern 2/3 of the country.
THE FRONT RANGE FIRES
The first I heard about the current events in Colorado was some buzzing in email about evacuation of the NCAR facility at Table Mesa in Boulder. Anyone who’s been inor near the climate science fiels in the US for a while is very familiar with the beautiful site, perched up above Boulder on a steep slope in the front range. (It must have been built during a brief period when the society actually wanted to encourage people to become scientists.)
Just behind the ridge a wildfire burned yesterday, and the possibility that NCAR would be torched looked all too real. Fortunately, this risk (the irony of which Joe Romm was quick to pick up upon) has abated, b ut unfortunately, a far greater risk has taken its place on the front range above Colorado Springs, Colorado’s second city and home of the US Air Force Academy.
So it appears that much of Colorado is in danger. The main point I’d like to address here is that it’s the front range, abutting most of the population, that is most of all in danger, and that this is not a coincidence..
NORMAL ACCIDENTS, ABNORMAL CATASTROPHES
In his masterpiece of research, the book Normal Accidents, sociologist Charles Perrow makes the point that the most consequential industrial accidents usually result from a multiplicity of adverse factors and errors. As we enter the age of increasingly unforeseen climate variations, the lesson begins to apply to natural catastrophes as well.
The greatest catastrophe of recent years in North America remains the chaos in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. A fair amount of secondary debate goes on as to whether or not the disaster can be attributed to “global warming” or more precisely, to anthropogenic climate change. It was, after all, an extraordinary storm in an an extraordinary year for Atlantic hurricanes. As people line up in mostly predictable clusters of opinion around this question, something important was lost in the shuffle.
Certainly, an extraordinary storm in an extraordinary storm season is relevant to the disaster. Whether and how much to attrib ute this to “global warming” is a question which invokes both mathematical and philosophical complexities. It’s a tough call. What is not at all a marginal decision, though, is whether the disaster could be attributed to warnings unheeded. There had been discussion of the vulnerabilitgy of New Orleans to a Katrina-like event for decades. The risk was well-known. The political will to reinforce the levees was not to be found before the disaster. Even the political will to set up a realistic evacuation plan was absent, and in the event, the competencies to do adequate disaster relief were shockingly absent in a domestic disaster despite the competence of Americans and westerners in responding to comparable events in places like Haiti or Bangladesh.
Business-as-usual trumped foresight. The ordinary compromises and petty corruptions of the marketplace and of government overrode the widely understood necessity for preventive action. Thousands of people died and most of a great and unique city lay in ruins. Arguably climate change had a hand in it, but a systematic failure to heed rational warnings was the root cause of the disaster.
RECENT HEAT-RELATED DISASTERS
In the last few years a phenomenon of intense and persistent medium-scale heat anomalies has clearly emerged. In the past decade, notable events have occurred centered in France, eastern Australia, central Russia and Texas. WHile most of these occur in summer, this spring we had an astonishing warm anomaly centered in WIsconsin and Minnesota.
It’s fair to say that this phenomenon was not clearly predicted in climate models. Consequently, it is fair to say that it is not fully understood, and whether it will remain a persistent feature of the climate is speculative. Strictly speaking, formal attribution will be difficult. But it being a global response, a global cause is to be sought and identification of a prime suspect doesn;t require much imagination. Global warming appears to be manifesting in large part as extreme regional anomalies, rather than as the gentle trend that some people are so eager to presume. And this leads, among other things, to stress on forests.
But, every forest that is with us is a forest on a crowded world. Few are in anything resembling a natural state. In particular, natural forests are susceptible to fires, fires which people living in forested regions are eager to suppress. Consequently, over trhe years, the combustible fuel in the forests (and to a lesser extent in grasslands) accumulates to an extent that would not occur in nature. Consequently, fires become hotter, larger, and more devastating when they do occur. This risk was well understood vefore anthropogenic climate change became a palpable part of our daily lives. The connection between the one and the other was not really considered.
Consequently, the extreme damage we saw in Moscow, in Bastrop Texas just a few months ago, and potentially in Colorado this week, was a Perrow-like interaction of two separate and disconnected unheeded warnings, just as the mortality from Katrina was.
The twenty years we have thrown away on the climate change issue since Rio has amounted to a wandering cosmic heat lamp, heating now one forest, now another, to the point of ignition. How much damage that ignition does comes down to local forest management practice. The building of wealthy suburbs in forested places like Boulder and Bastrop, with a strategy not of forest clearing but of fire suppression, has provided a great supply of tinder.
These errors are fundamentally alike. They result from pressures of the marketplace with its systematic discounting of the future. Discounting the future amounts also to a systematic devaluing of low-probability events. The errors combine in a way that is far worse than the additive sum of the risks considered separately.
GET USED TO IT
The pervasive nature of climate change exacerbates many other risks. Failure to account for those other risks occurs for similar reasons to the increasingly obvious failure to account for climate risks. Combined disasters combine worse than additively.
This is how it hits the fan.
Bastrop wildfire: Wikipedia
Drought Map: Drought Monitor (University of Nebraska at Lincoln)
Waldo Canyon fire: Wikipedia