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Why fires were so destructive

The Wine Country wildfires brought heartache. They should have also brought urgency to conversations about why they happened. Most of us already know the answer, but must still begin acting on it.

I’m a member of a climate change class organized by the Center for Climate Protection. Our mission includes settling on preferred reactions to the changing climate and learning to build support for those reactions.

Among the books we’re reading is “Don’t Even Think about It” by George Marshall. It’s a study of how people form and cling to opinions on public policy. Marshall writes about Bastrop, a Texas town ravaged in 2011 by wildfires that climate change observers had predicted as increasingly likely.

When he visited Bastrop in 2012, Marshall found that no one remembered talking about the link between the fires and climate change. They were proud of their response to the humanitarian needs caused by the fires, but the possible role of climate change hadn’t become a topic of discourse.

We can do better in Sonoma County.

Our wildfires were terrible, far worse than anyone could have envisioned. And the response of the community was exceptional, graciously hosting evacuees, digging deep for donations, and selflessly volunteering time. It makes me proud to live in the North Bay.

But we must also begin having conversations about why the fires erupted beyond all expectations, causing many of us to go to sleep to reports of a few scattered fires and to awaken to hundreds of people missing and thousands homeless.

I won’t argue that the fires were caused solely by climate change. That would likely be an exaggeration. However, there is a strong case, as there has been for many severe events of the recent past, that climate change makes bad events worse.

Efforts have begun to pillory PG&E for power lines that perhaps provided the initial sparks. But the sparking, if it happened, came during gale-force winds that were spinning madly around the compass, a weather condition likely the result of a changing climate.

The initial flames, from whatever source, found a dense understory, the result of historic rainfall last winter that is also likely tied to climate change. The spreading fires then leapt upward into mature vegetation still stressed by three preceding years of severe drought, another likely climate change product. Finally, the embers were whipped forward by the strong winds, causing the fire to spread at a terrifying pace.

Perhaps PG&E lines did provide the spark. But climate change piled the tinder high. That’s our reality. Trying to put full blame on PG&E is an exercise in excusing ourselves, which is both wrong and unhelpful.

If anyone wants to dismiss our wildfires as a single data point, be reminded that in 2017 an unprecedented five consecutive tropical depressions matured into hurricanes, a hurricane struck Ireland for the first time in 50 years, and the first pitch of a World Series game was thrown in 103 degree heat, breaking the record by nine degrees.

Luckily, many of us already understand about climate change, with more than half of the population acknowledging that the climate is changing and that we’ve played a role. But the same polls also report that most of us don’t know what to do with that knowledge. So we must become more public and proactive with our understanding of climate change.

Former Santa Rosa mayor Jane Bender, who was evacuated during the fires, tells a story that illustrates the point. She was in the checkout line at a grocery store, restocking her larder after being allowed to go home. As she waited, a woman behind her repeated a soon-to-be-debunked story about an arsonist being arrested for the fires.

Bender turned and engaged with the woman, asserting that much of the responsibility lay with us for the climate change we’ve wrought. She then steeled herself for the rebuttal.

The rebuttal never came. Instead, the woman hesitated before quietly replying “You’re right.”

Embracing the truth without hesitation and deciding what to do next should consume our region in the coming months.

(Dave Alden is a registered civil engineer. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. His email address is davealden53@comcast.net.)