California Reeling from Record Wildfire

Deadly “Camp” fire burns after close of normal fire season 

CaliforniaGeo 11-19-18

A fire season like no other before it in northern California has lapsed into November and produced a new record for loss of life and property destruction that’s still being tallied.  One town (Paradise) was effectively obliterated by this fast moving fire and another (Magalia) suffered major damage.  While the downslope winds out of the northeast raged, the fate of two much larger cities (Chico and Oroville) was in doubt for a time.  The explosive growth and speed of this fire eclipsed the blazes that blew into Santa Rosa neighborhoods in the middle of the night a year ago.

 The wind direction has continued largely unchanged since this fire began on November 8th, and millions in the Sacramento Valley and Bay Area have been suffering from unhealthy air, unprecedented in its severity and duration.  Many public outdoor events have been cancelled along with school closures, and particulate masks won’t be able to protect the health of the most susceptable who’ve faced this long-term smoke. 

At present, the “Camp” fire is burning northeasterly up the north fork of the Feather River, a watershed that’s a source of drinking and irrigation water for millions. 

The lead time for soil stabilization activities will be very short before what would normally be moderate (and sometimes heavy) precipitation in this watershed.

There is no “silver lining” to this devastating event, and a glass half-full realization might be that this fire and all other conflagrations like it reduce available carbon storage.  Wood stores carbon and keeps carbon dioxide (that basic heat trapping greenhouse gas) out of the atmosphere as long as it doesn’t rot in place or burn up.  Forest fires in the U.S. contribute to global warming advancement just as the loss of rainforests near the equator do.  Healthy forests with increased wood volume or processed lumber that becomes a permanent part of buildings can each isolate carbon that would otherwise increase warming.

If we can keep forests from burning up by thinning and harvesting the correct amounts instead of allowing fuel build ups that once ignited become difficult to stop—then we can protect soils, absorb more water during intense rainfall, and release water to streams more slowly.  This helps prevent erosion, protects fisheries, and delivers more water during the dry season when it’s needed most.

However, none of this matters if we are in perpetual drought that’s likely influenced by climate  change.  Firefighters say they’ve never seen fuels so dry,  or fire moving at such accelerated speeds through woody fuels, especially in strong winds.  

We can take steps toward better forestry, insist on better exterior housing materials, and regulate against too much tall tree density near communities.  But we cannot control exterior temperatures, droughts or wind speeds.

If carbon and other more potent greenhouse gases (like methane) can be reduced, we might set an example that more people could follow to reduce combusted fossil fuels.  In fact, we were once a signatory to the Paris Climate Accords—now we are the only nation who has pulled out. 

California decided long ago to go greener due to altruism as well as self-interest.  Electric vehicle sales continue to take a bite out of emissions in the transportation category that comprises 70% of the state’s total.  Renewable electricity is scheduled to make up a third of California’s electric generation by 2020, half by 2030, and all of it by 2045.

  California has an entire climate protection strategy for an emissions reduction target of (40% below 1990 levels by 2030).  Doubling energy efficiency of buildings is a portion of this effort.  But what if you could zoom toward carbonless zero energy use in buildings?  It’s already happening.

Geo heat pumps connect to the earth and tap a perpetual thermal battery that can provide heat for space and hot water, and also remove unwanted heat during hot weather—all on less electrical power than standard mechanical equipment.

Larger buildings often consume thousands of gallons a week of “cooling tower” water for cooling purposes.  This is primitive technology compared to geo heat pumps that use no water and can pre-heat hot water from cooling before shipping the excess underground.  And among multiple buildings on the same “campus,” geo heat pumps can use  a common district heat exchange loop, sharing their heating and cooling loads between buildings for maximum efficiency.

Every building can make use of geo heat pumps, avoiding the leakage and combustion of fossil fuels, and the warming of dense neighborhoods in hot weather by typical air conditioners that leave a “heat island” effect.

Installing an underground heat exchanger is new to many, but everything else about geo heat pumps is conventional, available, and already off-the-shelf. 

Geo heat pumps can help us knock down greenhouse gas emissions from building stock, a sector from which over 20% of California’s emissions originate.  As the principle of Beneficial Electrification takes hold, we will continue to see more electrical appliances, vehicles, efficient lighting, and yes, geo heat pumps.  

Cleanly generated electrons can do us a lot of good, starting with knocking down emissions and improving air quality.  This improves our respiratory health and lowers medical costs.  The day could come where all our heating, cooling, and hot water is renewable thermal energy provivded by the earth, while the power to run it and everything else comes from the sun, wind, or falling water. 

The California Geothermal Heat Pump Association is here to assist this important transition.  In the effort to reduce greenhouse gases and win the fight against continued severe climate change, we deliver the greatest thermal transfer capacity for the least amount of power—something the EPA recognized two decades ago.  Slowing the pace of global warming could help to ease climate change, and in the process, make catastrophic fire less likely.