Char Miller

Professor of Environmental Analysis Char Miller

California is facing a destructive, extended fire season that is now coming close to winter.
An expert on wildfires and wildfire policy, Professor of Environmental Analysis Char Miller comments on the latest fires that devastated parts of Southern California and explains the relationship between factors of climate change and urban sprawl in Los Angeles.

“These fires are big, fast, and furious,” says Miller. “But the most striking thing about their vast size, bewildering speed, destructive power is that the fires blew up in December. This is a sign that the fire season is lengthening as the drought in Southern California deepens. Add in the suburban nature of this blaze—like those in Napa and Sonoma counties this August, and the Blue Cut fire in August 2016—and becomes clear that the wind-whipped infernos are not an anomaly, but the future. A future that is now here to stay.”

Miller has written extensively about wildland fire in his books “Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream,” “America's Great National Forests” and “Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy." He has published relevant op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Daily News, The Sacramento Bee and The Washington Post.

Why is California having devastating fires in late fall?

In one sense, this fall is not much different than other autumns--this is the period that we describe as the state’s fire season. The differences far outweigh the similarities, however. Southern California is now locked into its seventh year of brutal drought, and the chaparral ecosystem, which dominates our foothills, canyons, and mountains, is badly water-stressed. Add to this context another set of factors: Fires are always wind-driven, and this month’s Santa Anas, and the related dome of high pressure that has produced week-after-week of temperatures hovering in the 80s, created the conditions for significant fire activity.

What role does climate change play into the extended fire season?

This month’s fires also point to the critical role that climate change is playing in shaping the nature and timing of wildfires in California. This historic drought, scientists calculate, is part a larger pattern in which SoCal will continue to dry out and warm up across this century. These fires are signal flares, then, warnings that intense fire activity in December—as unusual as it seems—is what we can anticipate in the coming years. We are bearing witness to a new, more challenging, and 12-month-long regime whose duration and intensity will continue to pose severe budgetary problems and tax firefighters.

How are the spatial dynamics of fires changing in Southern California?

The Thomas, Creek, Rye, and Skirball fires in the Southland, like the Lilac in San Diego, reveal an important, and little discussed, link between climate-fueled wildfires and SoCal’s urbanization. As I have argued in “Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream,” and in a recent blog post, there is a tight link between fire and sprawl. Wherever we build subdivisions, fires erupt. That was true in the 1960s in Bel Air and other mid-century suburbs in San Fernando, San Gabriel and Pomona valleys. The Blue Cut Fire in August 2016, which forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 people out of the Cajon Pass environs, tells the same story. So do the current infernos that have burned through cul-de-sac neighborhoods in Santa Clarita all the way to Santa Barbara County.

Viewed from above, another pattern emerges: what has tied these communities to the larger urban economy are cars and freeways, and every one of the current fires has burned along (and across) these concrete transportation grids. Another way to see this pattern is to follow the flow of electricity, from power stations to residential and commercial consumers, an indispensable network that makes urbanization possible and, when high-voltage wires snap in Santa Ana conditions, can ignite fire-ready landscapes. That planning boards and zoning commissions routinely and uncritically sanction these interlocking grids is a significant issue. It is way past time for these oversight agencies to call the question on the dangers that are a direct outgrowth of sprawl.

Are devastating fires like the ones in Northern and Southern California the new normal?

The collision between climate change and California’s urbanization is not going to change any time soon. We are still building deep into the fire zones, with more than 13 million people now inhabiting landscapes that are fire-prone and/or fire-adapted. This is a recipe for disaster, but understand that there is nothing ‘natural’ about this result; it is entirely human-constructed. Unless people work diligently to change the flammable conditions that define this urbanized terrain, the consequences will be disastrous.

Char Miller in the News

Associated Press – California communities under siege from wind-drive fires

Wall Street Journal – Wildfire take Los Angeles area by surprise

BBC Mundo - ¿Por qué es tan preocupante que el sur de California esté ardiendo en pleno mes de diciembre?