Are Our Sierra Nevada Towns Destined to Go Down in Flames?
Read the "story behind the story" of how Richard did his reporting here.
I grew up in Quincy, California, a small, vibrant mountain community in the far north reaches of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
The area is home to about 5,000 people; we caught up with each other in the bank teller line or while checking out in one of the two grocery stores or came together several times a year for events like the County Fair, the Christmas Tree Lighting, and an annual community picnic.
Quincy was the ideal place to come of age. Growing up there was carefree. I could ride my bike anywhere (the town only has two traffic lights that are less than twenty years old anyway) and outdoor adventures were plenty. The forest was my oyster and I have memories beyond the counting of being among the trees. From exploring the forest with my dog while my dad fell trees for firewood to driving the dirt roads at unsafe speeds when I first got my driver’s license. I cut my teeth in the Plumas National Forest.
I had never given much thought to wildfires as a kid. I knew they were a natural part of the forest ecosystem. Whenever they erupted, I would admire the towering cloud of smoke.
Wildfires were a part of life. There were only a couple of summers growing up when forest fires impacted me directly. I had never given much thought to wildfires as a kid. I knew they were a natural part of the forest ecosystem. Whenever they erupted, I would admire the towering cloud of smoke. My dad, who was a forester for the U.S. Forest Service, would often head out and help quench the flames when I was a young kid. I even considered joining a hot shot crew out of high school but never did.
Over the past several years though, things have been changing. The Taco Bell and Dollar Tree shut down, replaced by a small brewery, a bakery, and a second auto supply store. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly has shifted things, but the community is still there: my graduating class had less than 80 kids and most of them remained.
But climate change has other plans.
Nearly twenty years after I left town, wildfires are posing a whole new threat to my homeland. Climate change has thrown some curveballs into wildfire activity. Fires not only burn for a longer stretch of time, as seen with last year’s Dixie fire, but they are becoming larger and larger.
“This drought was much hotter and that is part of the reason why we are seeing these impacts to fire,” said Dr. Daniel McEvoy, an Assistant Research Professor in Climatology at the Western Regional Climate Center, part of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. Speaking with him in length last fall, he explained to me that his research shows that the region’s humidity has been declining over time while temperatures have steadily increased. Essentially, the ongoing drought is getting worse.
As climate change is driving droughts to become more austere, two indices scientists are focused on is the Evaporative Demand Drought Index (EDDI), which looks at how “thirsty” the atmosphere is – which leads to the drying of soils and vegetation – due to recent patterns of temperature, wind speed, humidity, and cloud cover, and the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI), a more recent index which uses monthly precipitation and temperature data to