Rainy winters in California mean lots of fires come fall. Always been that way. Everyone looks to extreme weather as evidence of climate change. But most extreme weather is just normal variation in weather patterns and the phenomena, like fires, or mudslides and debris flows, or flooding associated with them. Fires are such a regular feature of California that many of our native plants can only reproduce if touched by fire. Every scrub oak you see is there because the acorn it germinated from was scorched in a brush fire. Native animal life has evolved with fire as well—such as the newt native to the Santa Monica mountains that goes from brown to black to match the ash and cinders following a fire. As the area recovers it turns brown again. Who knows how many generations of newts and how many fires it took natural selection to come up with that trait.
There is nothing unusual or new about autumns full of fires in California. If you’ve lived here for decades you’ve lived through a dozen or more hellish weeks of fires. You’ve seen tens of thousands of homes burn on TV. You‘ve seen fire lighting up the hillsides by night and you’ve breathed more smoke than hundreds of pack of cigarettes. You can tell by the color of the distant pall if a fire is growing or dying. You know what the dry winds bring.
But climate change is here in LA, and it’s profound, yet so profound you scarcely notice it because it is climate change and not a change in the weather. It’s the mild summers we now have, because the warmer Pacific has pushed warmer and heavier humid air inland which keeps out the hotter desert air which is what brought us the hundred degree heat waves. And it’s our milder winters because the warmer ocean air keeps out the frigid desert winter air that used to bring us temperatures in the low thirties and leave the vast parking lots around malls in the west Valley splotched with ice. It’s why Santa Ana winds never blow through the LA Basin anymore, because the marine air here keeps out the desert air that used to blow through Hollywood in the fall and leave the streets a mess of palm fronds. It’s why lawns throughout the city remain green year round because the blades of grass draw moisture from the humid air. It’s why you don’t itch all over as your epidermis dries out, and why your hay fever is year round because the air is thick and damp enough to keep microscopic pollen aloft for you to take in with every breath. It’s why mosquitoes from the tropics of southeastern Asian have adapted so quickly to our once mosquito free paradise. All that is climate change, the daily things, the changes so subtle that you don’t even realize how different things are from twenty years ago.
Fires come and go, sometimes in huge conflagrations as in 2017 and 2018, and sometimes in smaller overhyped burns like this year, with hundreds of reporters wondering why more houses aren’t burning. A few months ago it was all the rain we were having, as if climate change was coming in waves of winter storms. We’ve forgotten that already, forgotten the poppies that splashed the fields like spilled paint and then we didn’t notice as all that spring lushness turned the hills and chaparral golden as it always does and now that gold is burning, as it always does. That’s the ordinary annual variation in weather. Most extreme weather events are just that, ordinary variation in weather patterns. It takes years and years before we can distinguish the ordinary variation of seasonal weather patterns from a fundamental change due to climate change. It’s in the changes in the day to day temperatures and humidity and breeze patterns that you can see and feel climate change, and our climate here in the Los Angeles Basin has changed subtly but profoundly in the past decade, and unless the Pacific off our coast returns to its previous chilly temperatures, the change will be here for a long, long time. That is the new normal everyone keeps talking about.