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Wildfire scientists brace for hotter, more flammable future as Paradise lies in ashes

Every man-made thing that burned, burned all the way.

That is the powerful first impression driving into Paradise after America’s deadliest wildfire in 100 years.

There are a few scorched-but-recognizable husks of gas stations or curio shops but most of the 14,000 homes that caught an ember burned with such blowtorch intensity, only railings and the fireplace remain.

Windows and car parts melted, hardening into bizarre puddles of glass and aluminum along a main drag where entire blocks of stores are gone.

The utter devastation leads to the second impression: This could have been so much worse.

More than 40,000 people reside in the Camp Fire’s path. Many rushed to evacuate on gridlocked roads or were forced to shelter in place amid blowing flame and choking smoke.

The official toll of 85 dead and now three still missing makes this the deadliest fire in California history but those numbers would be so much higher if not for the countless heroes, in and out of uniform.

And while the Camp Fire may be studied for lessons in disaster management and community resilience, those who study fire, water, wind and climate see it as a warning to brace for a hotter, more flammable future.

“Yes we are seeing larger fires,” says Don Hankins as we walk the scorched ridge line where the Camp Fire’s flames passed. “The season in which wildfires is happening is definitely increasing,” he says. “Our rainy season seems to be getting shorter.”

As a professor at Cal State Chico, Hankins teaches the geography of fire and, as a Butte County resident, he was forced to evacuate the most destructive blaze in state history.

According to the National Climate Assessment issued by 13 federal agencies, climate change is responsible for half of the forestland burned in Western states since the mid-80s and without a cutback in fossil fuels, longer fire seasons will be part of a devastating hit to the American economy. Fire season could last all year long.

“I don’t believe it. No, I don’t believe it,” said President Trump when asked about his government’s Climate Assessment prediction, released amid the holiday distractions of Black Friday.

“Well, my colleague Katharine Hayhoe says climate change is like gravity,” says Dr. Faith Kearns. “Climate change doesn’t really care if you believe in it or not. It’s reality. We have gravity, we have climate change.”

As a scientist at University of California’s Institute for Water Resources, Kearns started her career as a conservative geologist, with a hesitancy to find “new normals” in the deep sweep of time. But as she studied wildfire trends over the past five years, she has changed. “I’ve been like ‘OK. It’s here. It’s happening.'”

Like her colleague Hankins, Kearns believes that California is paying for the sin of building in wilderness with no regard for nature’s cycles.

Six years of drought, a pine beetle infestation and generations of forest mismanagement means there are 129 million dead trees in California, most of them on federal land. But until they burn, there is much more profit to be made building houses than clearing trees.

Why the California wildfires spread so quickly

“In this area something like 25,000 houses were built in the last 10 years and in the same time, 20,000 houses have burned,” Kearns says. “In the past we might have managed fire thinking about the past and a lot of, you know, a lot of natural hazards have been viewed that way sort of through the lens of history.”

She shrugs and points to what’s left of Paradise.

“We can’t really rely on history as a guide anymore.”

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