How climate change is creating the new normal of California wildfires

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Climate change’s impact on California cannot be understated. Businesses and homes are preparing for a more wildfire-prone future. Graphic by Cristobal Spielmann. 

By Cristobal Spielmann, Brian Jeffries

Wildfires are getting bigger and wildfire seasons are getting longer as a result of the impact of climate change. The recent massive heatwave across the Western United States set new heat records on top of a decades long megadrought. The high temperatures and dry conditions makes California the perfect environment for massive wildfires. 

Businesses integral to the California economy, like the nearly $10 billion wine industry, are bracing for an increasingly drier, more fire-prone climate. 

“It seems like the weather’s more dramatic,” said Joey Tensley, founder and owner of the Los Olivos-based winery Tensley Wines. Tensley started the winery back in 1998, having been in the business since 1993, and has noticed a major change in the climate since he began. 

 “It used to be kind of more just muddled … but now it seems like we get really, really hot spikes, heat storms or really, really cold winters,” he said 

Tensley’s anecdotal observations match up with how climate change results in extreme weather  

events more often, with heatwaves becoming more frequent in recent years in California, according to NASA. Tensley said they pick grapes earlier because of earlier ripening in the extreme heat. 

Much of the state resides in a chaparral biome, where cool air meets relatively warm land and vegetation is small and dense, as explained by the Economist. While these conditions are great for growing grapes, as Tensley explained, the high Santa Ana winds and dry plant matter specific to the California chaparral are the perfect fuel for wildfires. 

Hotter temperatures and plant growth from decades of actively preventing smaller wildfires has led to larger infernos. Tensley described several instances in Sonoma and Napa Valley, wine country, where fires threatened the safety of vineyards. Tensley also talked about one instance four years ago in which a ranch of his in Santa Maria, Colson Canyon, was almost burnt by a wildfire before being saved indirectly through its proximity to a residential area. 

“Luckily, there’s a lot of houses in the canyon,” Tensley said, “so the fire guys basically kept it from going down the canyon and burning the top ridges of both sides.” 

Not everyone is as fortunate to have their homes spared from flames. Thousands of structures were destroyed by wildfires just last fire season, according to the Los Angeles Times, which could be seen again in this possibly historic fire season. 

Daniel Kent, a long-time resident of Napa, California, lost his home during the Atlas Fire in 2017. He was out of town during the blaze. While he has reestablished himself back in his hometown, questions remain as to how and if he will stay through future fire seasons.  

“Evacuations are a lot more prevalent. Everyone has to take the threat very seriously now, but honestly the hardest part living here is the smoke,” Kent said. “For six weeks the smoke is so bad that it can irritate your throat.” 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from burning plants, buildings and other materials. These gases can also exacerbate the symptoms of heart and lung disease, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

Tensley said there’s uncertainty around how willing business owners will be to build in an increasingly hostile, fire-prone environment. 

“I don’t see, in the future, how banks are going to want to fund the loans on some of these buildings and in some of these areas,” Tensley said. “And insurance companies, same way. I don’t know how they’re going to insure places that have burned three or four times in 10 or 15 years.” 

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