Here's some terrible news to mark the beginning of permanent fire season in California: It's going to stay like this, hot and dry, until May. The Climate Prediction Center says winter will come and go without the usual winter storms that provide the snowpack that provides all the water people use. Fire conditions will be awful until summer, when they will continue being awful until next winter, if winter ever shows up again.
With 2013 already on record as the driest year in recorded California history, the exact last thing we need is another winter without rain and snow. But that's what 2014 is forecast to be, at least through the crucial January-May rainy season.
The seasons are more subtle here, with the only real weather drama coming from a dozen or so winter storms responsible for all the Sierra Nevada snow and most of the state's rainfall. But after so many dry years, the whole state looks parched and yellowed, the scrub brush hills and parched mountains already burning again in a fire season that has lasted all of this century so far.
Wildfires have raged up and down the state in these first weeks of the new year, because the brush and the weeds and trees are dried out, the humidity low, the temperatures high and the rainfall nonexistent. With large fires already scarring the San Gabriel Mountains, the Sacramento Delta and even in the alleged rainy forests of Humboldt County, 2014 is already looking very bad.
Suburbs are the dominant "built environment" in California, as they are in all of the Southwest United States. Each new ring of low-density development eats up open space and pushes as far as economically possible against the hills or mountains beyond the distant urban core. Hills and mountains have the most trees and brush, so the outlying suburbs are always first to burn when the hot winds suck columns of fire down the slopes and canyons. The invasive weeds that have covered the foothills and deserts in the past 30 years put an end to the natural fire suppression of the past, when widely spaced desert plants limited the reach of fires in the driest regions.
The ongoing drought—described by climate scientists as a "megadrought"—is already 13 years old in the American West. There are visible and permanent changes in the mountains, where the annual snowpack has been a small fraction of what was normal in the 20th Century. The forests have been hit hard by parasites like the pine beetle, which feasts on trees weakened by years of drought. Dry and dead trees are the first to catch fire, and as the forested slopes erode there is only desert brush and invasive weeds to grow in the scorched sandy ground that remains.
In medieval times, a thousand years ago, megadroughts lasting up to three decades affected the entire continental United States. Entire civilizations vanished, like the Hohokam society that once sprawled over hundreds of square miles where Arizona's biggest city sits today. But there have been longer droughts in America, too. Climate scientists studying tree rings have evidence of megadroughts lasting a century or more. One of those would be enough to end modern American civilization, if something else doesn't do it first.
These past megadroughts were obviously not caused by industrial society. But the conditions of man-made climate change—particularly the higher temperatures, drilling the water table dry, and clearing of forests and open space—will make a lengthy megadrought especially hard on our form of civilization.
The Central Valley agricultural industry is already getting 95% less water than it would in good years. And in Northern California, rationing means that marijuana farmers will be struggling. For people who still have lawns around their single-family houses, it will be dust and brown dead grass. It is easy to forget just how unpleasant a long California drought can be, and people in their 20s or 30s may have no memory at all of life without being able to flush the toilet if there's "only" urine in the bowl.