Forest fires, drought and melting snow caps: California’s new normal

The Golden State offers one of those contrasting landscapes that is simultaneously picturesque and parched.

November 27, 2018 05:05 pm | Updated 07:37 pm IST

These burnt redwoods and pines are the remnants of the 2013 Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest about 80 kilometres northwest of the Yosemite Valley in the central Sierra Nevada. The Rim Fire was triggered due to an accidental gun-shot. It scorched over 257,000 acres of forests.

These burnt redwoods and pines are the remnants of the 2013 Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest about 80 kilometres northwest of the Yosemite Valley in the central Sierra Nevada. The Rim Fire was triggered due to an accidental gun-shot. It scorched over 257,000 acres of forests.

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Wildfires, floods, drought and melting snow caps — this has been California’s new normal in the past decade. The State that produces over half of America’s food has been facing extreme weather on an unprecedented scale. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Cal Fire , five of the State’s 20 deadliest wildfires on record have occurred in the past two years. Seven of the 20 largest fires by area occurred between 2012 and 2018. In the past seven years, 2016 was the only year without a fire. 2017 witnessed an unprecedented five wildfires, making it the most destructive in terms of property damage in living memory, destroying nearly 10,000 structures and scorching almost half a million acres of land. All the five fires were the most destructive of the past 20 fires.

But nothing prepared Californians to the twin disasters this year — the raging Camp Fire, 300 kilometres east of San Francisco, and Woolsey Fire, just west of Los Angeles. At the time of writing, Camp Fire has claimed over 80 lives, left hundreds missing, and tens of thousands homeless, making it the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. It wiped out the town of Paradise, which had a population of 26,000, in less than 12 hours on November 8 — the day the fire began — starting reportedly at 6:30 a.m. Paradise was an idyllic retirement community on the western edge of the Plumas National Forest in northern California. Camp Fire engulfed 17 miles and scorched 55,000 acres within the first 12 hours according to a New York Times news report . President Donald Trump attempted damage control nine days after the conflagration erupted, by visiting the affected region and blaming California’s ‘poor forest management’ for the fires. For at least two weeks following the ignition, the air quality in the San Fransisco Bay Area had been the worst that people can remember, forcing residents to wear masks before heading out into the thick smog which makes driving a risky prospect.

This sort of situation is not new to California.

I travelled to the Yosemite National Park in September of 2015, two years after the Rim Fire, which was then the third-largest fire in California’s history. It had burnt over 250,000 acres in the adjoining Stanislaus National Forest and some areas of the Yosemite National Park as well. But the Thomas Fire of December 2017 and the Mendocino Complex Fire of July 2018 have pushed Rim Fire to the fifth place in terms of affected landmass.

Polished granite cliffs, parched waterfalls, the changing hues of autumn, leaping mule deer, and sweeping surreal vistas — that was Yosemite National Park in September 2015. This splendour, however, belied the turmoil within.

This is the first sweeping view of the Yosemite Valley as visitors exit the Wawona Tunnel, captured in Autumn of 2015. Called the Artist Point, the 12-km expanse of the valley floor 4,000 feet above sea level flanked by steep granite cliffs is only a fraction of the Yosemite National Park. To its left is the El Capitan mountain’s south-west facade. At distant right is the iconic Half Dome north-east of the valley. The Three Brothers mountains are on the right just above the dried-up Bridal Veil water falls facing the south-east valley floor. The Sierra Nevada mountain range is the world’s largest concentration of granite in any single landmass.

This is the first sweeping view of the Yosemite Valley as visitors exit the Wawona Tunnel, captured in Autumn of 2015. Called the Artist Point, the 12-km expanse of the valley floor 4,000 feet above sea level flanked by steep granite cliffs is only a fraction of the Yosemite National Park. To its left is the El Capitan mountain’s south-west facade. At distant right is the iconic Half Dome north-east of the valley. The Three Brothers mountains are on the right just above the dried-up Bridal Veil water falls facing the south-east valley floor. The Sierra Nevada mountain range is the world’s largest concentration of granite in any single landmass.

One of America’s oldest protected wild habitats, Yosemite lies within the spectacular Sierra Nevada mountain range. Located largely in the north-central region of California on the country’s West Coast, it was celebrating its 125th year as a federally administered park. Home to some of the world’s oldest and largest plants — the giant sequoias, Yosemite is considered a success story in conservation efforts worldwide.

Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite’s conservation is the first-ever effort to protect a natural habitat in the United States, dating back to 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed what is called the Yosemite Grant. The grant handed the Valley and the adjoining Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias over to the State of California as a public trust. But it took nearly three more decades and an alarm raised by celebrated naturalist John Muir, who successfully led a movement to promote the conservation in the valley and have the surrounding mountains be directly administered by the federal government.

But the State’s record-breaking drought, running into its fourth successive year in 2015, cast a shadow on the celebrations. The land was dry and the glaciers that serve as the lifeline for several of the country’s largest urban centres, including the San Francisco Bay Area (colloquially known as the Bay Area) and the Greater Los Angeles Area, had not received adequate snow to recharge the rivers that supply water to these cities.

A 2015 report in the San Francisco Chronicle quoted a park geologist saying its largest glacier at Yosemite’s highest peak, Mount Lyell, had lost “90 percent of its volume and 80 percent of its surface area”. More ominously, he said that in a matter of five years the glacier would disappear. This drastic shrinkage has been observed as having occurred almost within the park’s lifetime. Muir mapped the Lyell Glacier in 1872 when he noted it to be ‘one mile wide and several hundreds of feet deep’.

Research tells us that there was a time when the glaciers came right down to the Yosemite Valley — a 12-kilometre-long flat-floored route of the Merced River, flanked by mountain ranges. But they have been melting over the past century, hastened by rise in global warming over the last few decades.

Scientists believe that the Sierra Nevada is the earth’s crust turned inside out. They say it has been formed due to faulting activities that took place hundreds of millions of years ago and continue to this day. These free-floating rocks that rose from the crust were bound by faults on the eastern side, located in the state of Nevada. This led to the dramatic rise of large granite sheets. It has made the mountain range the world’s largest concentration of granite on any single landmass. The deep canyons and the polished granite have been formed due to several more millennia of powerful but intermittent periods of glacial activity.

United States National Park Service, which manages all federally protected habitats, says 95% of Yosemite’s expansive 3,000 square kilometres continues to be protected wilderness. Indeed, a visit there does demonstrate the extent to which care has been taken over the years, by officials and visitors alike, to leave the park in as inviolate a condition as possible.

Camping is a popular activity year-round (pictured here, tent and storage area at Wawona Campground) with the nearly four million visitors every year to the Yosemite National Park.

Camping is a popular activity year-round (pictured here, tent and storage area at Wawona Campground) with the nearly four million visitors every year to the Yosemite National Park.

Camp sites strictly ensure that “scented, liquid or food items” are concealed in “bear-proof” iron containers; camp fires are put out before going to bed; lessons on how to react to a bear-visit is prominently displayed to avoid as much conflict as possible; trash is stored in sealed containers; and littering is rare.

Yet, in the drought years between 2013 and 2015, the National Park Service recorded a total of 361 “human-bear incidents”. Its website reports 120 incidents in 2013. This number rose to 165 the next year, and dropped by 50% to 76 in 2015. It then fell further to 38 in 2016. While the conflicts have reduced since 2013, conservationists say drought years witness increased movement of animals in search of food and water.

While the California Grizzlies have been extinct for almost a Century now, NPS says about 300 to 500 American Black Bears, a much smaller cousin of the California Grizzly, still call Yosemite home. I was unable to spot any on this camping trip, but it is a major draw at the park.

The Mule Deer can be easily spotted on strolls, grazing on the meadows of Yosemite Valley. Accustomed to human presence, they even graze on hotel lawns located within the park. We spotted them at The Ahwhanee — a Century-old icon of the Park, built to embody the surrounding grandeur.

All properties within Yosemite are owned by the U.S. government and managed by a private agency. Construction activities are highly restricted, including road-widening and upkeep of existing infrastructure. There are entry restrictions for visitors based on several factors — human impact on ecology, vehicular traffic and most significantly, wildfires.

Despite this attention, several factors have caused a steep decline in the quality of the natural habitat. Over the years, 1,287 kilometres of walking and hiking trails have come about within the park, which allows for much greater human interference. Another 344 kilometres of paved roads have enabled a greater year-round number of visitors of all ages and nationalities. The park has recorded a year-on-year increase in visitors, particularly those who stay overnight.

Roughly 8.5 million people rely on the Tuolumne, another major river, which originates in Yosemite. It supplies the Bay Area with 85% of its water requirement. The Tuolumne was dammed following a controversial plan to submerge the Hetch Hetchy Valley on the river’s course running west. The devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and successive droughts hastened the need for a secure water source for what was the fastest-growing city on the West Coast at the time. Muir and other conservationists opposed it in vain.

The Hetch Hetchy reservoir, when photographed here in October 2015, only held one-sixth of its 450-billion-litre capacity due to the fourth consecutive year of drought.

The Hetch Hetchy reservoir, when photographed here in October 2015, only held one-sixth of its 450-billion-litre capacity due to the fourth consecutive year of drought.

 

It is now called the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, completed in 1938, running eight miles long with a capacity to hold 450 billion litres of water at a maximum depth of 308 feet. But a park authority at the reservoir, not wishing to be named, said Hetch Hetchy’s waters was touching about one-sixth of its capacity, one of the lowest it had ever been.

The Tuolumne empties into the San Joaquin River. These two rivers together provide most of California’s water supply. A common refrain in northern California is that the south is “stealing” water from them. Indeed, the Greater Los Angeles Area constitutes the second-largest urban centre after New York, with a population of 13 million, accounting for one of the highest levels of household-water-consumption nationwide, despite being in a largely arid region.

Higher temperatures and deficient snow has meant dry forests. This has caused record numbers of wildfires in the past decade. Of the top 20 California wildfires, half have occurred in the past decade and 19 of them in the last 50 years. Rim Fire, the fifth-worst recorded by size in California history, scorched an area one-third the size of Yosemite National Park in 2013 right around where the Hetch Hetchy reservoir is located. Several roads leading into the forest remain closed and mountains of the fire’s trail are still visible.

Devastation by Rim Fire — these are forests to the south east of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, reduced to a swathe of prickly stumps.

Rim Fire devastation: These are forests to the south east of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, reduced to a swathe of prickly stumps.

 

It is estimated that 90% of forest fires are caused due to human activity, an indication of the level of interference within forested areas. Rim Fire was triggered by an accidental gunshot by a hunter who had procured the weapon illegally. The fire was officially declared “contained” nine weeks after it began on August 17 deep within the Stanislaus National Forest. The policy of swiftly containing forest fires has also seen an increase in their frequencies and the speed at which they spread. Unburnt dry vegetation on the forest floor becomes rich fodder for future fires. A 2017 study , conducted by researchers from multiple universities from the U.S., UK, and Spain, estimates that carbon emissions from Rim Fire would equal the annual emission from 2.57 million cars.

All this churning in the Sierra has had a cascading effect on California’s sprawling farmlands and its mega cities. The frequent spells of drought and the hardship it has caused has been the top news in the State for years now. Signs on highways and notices in public toilets implore visitors to be judicious with water; menus in restaurants mention water would be served only “upon request”; residents across the State are flushing their toilets and watering their gardens less frequently.

California Governor Edmund Brown declared a “state of emergency” in January 2015, setting a goal of a 25%reduction in water use by individual homes across the State. The government’s website congratulated its residents, claiming to be on target so far. Hollywood celebrities like Steve Carrell were roped in to voice radio public service announcements asking Los Angeles residents to ‘be nice to their friend — water’. Carrell says, “Let’s do this LA, or pretty soon, our friend may not stick around.” He implores residents to use “California friendly landscape” directed towards unsustainable water-guzzling lawns and golf courses, which dot the city.

 

 

While most Californians heeded the government’s call to conserve, millionaires particularly in LA paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain their unsustainable lifestyles. Writing about the ‘million-gallon homes’ , Katharine Miezkowski of the Bay Area–based The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) says, “365 California households pumped more than 1 million gallons (3.7 million litres) of water apiece during the year ending in April 2015. One million gallons is enough for eight families for a year, according to a 2011 State estimate.” Her investigation revealed the State’s biggest water-guzzling home to be at the famous 90210 pin code of Beverly Hills, which pumped nearly 35 million litres of water last year. But the names of these homeowners are withheld by authorities based on a 1997 legislation that outlawed naming them citing privacy concerns raised by Silicon Valley executives. The legislation was due to an outcry for action by residents in 1991, when a newspaper disclosed usage information of top consumers during a period of drought.

According to data collected by California’s Pacific Institute United States is the eighth-highest per-capita water-consuming nation in 2005. Every American resident used 193 cubic metres of water that year. But domestic use constituted only 13% and the rest was almost equally divided between industry and agriculture. In contrast, India’s total water withdrawals were almost double the United States’, but domestic use was almost five times lower. While it constituted 7% of the total, about half that of America, an overwhelming 90% was used for agriculture.

California’s highest water-consuming sector is agriculture. Media reports put it at 80%, while the Pacific Institute’s data puts it close to 65%. While agriculture’s contribution to the State’s Gross Domestic Product has steadily declined over the years, its significance and the numbers employed remain high, as is the trend in most industrial and rapidly industrialising nations like China or India. A drought in California means a rise in prices of essentials nationwide. The State’s agricultural practices have come under sharp scrutiny lately. Farmers are beginning to adopt drip irrigation and are attempting a wider mix of crops to conserve water. Higher consumption is being charged more, or simply being disallowed.

 

But until 2014, California was the only State that did not monitor groundwater withdrawals. Reports show that farmers supplement up to 70% of their water needs from wells during periods of drought. This has led to drying up of aquifers and even the sinking of the land by more than two feet in the Central Valley between 2008 and 2011 going by a 2015 NASA report . It says ‘subsidence, that is the sinking of land due to excessive groundwater extraction during drought conditions has occurred for decades in California, but it is happening faster now, up to five centimetres every month in some locations, putting infrastructure in these regions at great risk.’

A similar situation had come about in India’s Deccan region, where unchecked groundwater use has led to a steep drop in the water table. In 2015, the same year Californians were facing one of their worst droughts in living memory, so were the people of Telangana. The 2015 drought in the Deccan had hit a point where all available water was mandated only for drinking.

While change has been slow, American journalist Charles Fishman, writing for the New York Times , argues that Californians have been “preparing for this drought for the past 20 years” , and that amidst all this pessimism over the drought, the conservation stories from across the State are being missed. He says, “Across Southern California, the progress is quietly astonishing. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California now supplies roughly 19 million people in six counties, and it uses slightly less water than it did 25 years ago, when it supplied 15 million people. That savings — more than one billion gallons each day — is enough to supply all of New York City.”

California is called the Golden State for its rolling hills. But this now signifies its dangerously drying vegetation on land that has been over-farmed. Cattle ranches such as these are a common sight while driving down from the Yosemite to San Francisco.

California is called the Golden State for its rolling hills. But this now signifies its dangerously drying vegetation on land that has been over-farmed. Cattle ranches such as these are a common sight while driving down from the Yosemite to San Francisco.

Fishman, however, warns that this “win” against the drought is “fragile”. About the magnitude of the drought, he writes, “In the town of East Porterville, in the central part of the State, the drinking wells began to go dry a year ago or more. Many residents rely on bottled water and water distributed at the fire station. Their taps, their toilets, their showers are dry — an astonishing level of deprivation in a state with great wealth.”

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