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Masters of Disasters: Broken records!

Episode Summary

When Mother Nature is setting climate disaster records every year, what can we do?

Episode Notes

Record heat. Record drought. Record floods. Record hail. Record bad air. In a world where climate disasters seem to break records every year, do records even mean anything anymore? And if not, then what’s next when it comes to measuring climate misery?

Today, we reconvene our Masters of Disasters to examine this existential question. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times wildfire reporter Alex Wigglesworth, L.A. Times energy reporter Sammy Roth, and L.A. Times air quality reporter Tony Briscoe.

More reading:

Destructive rain in Death Valley, flooded Vegas casinos mark a summer of extreme weather

As forests go up in smoke, so will California’s climate plan

California’s epic heat wave is over. Here’s what we learned

Episode Transcription

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: California. We like to think we lead the nation when it comes to culture, tech, politics, whatever. But we're also setting all sorts of records and something that, um, we're not really happy with: natural disasters.

NEWS CLIP: Dangerous heat, explosive wildfires. And now the possibility of floods.  California is getting it all. The flames were 300 feet in the air. The trees were exploding. 

GUSTAVO: Meanwhile, the rest of the world says, hold my beer. 

NEWS CLIP:  Heat waves in Europe, colossal floods in Pakistan, prolonged and severe droughts in China, the Horn of Africa and the United States. There is nothing natural about the new scale of these disasters. They are the price of humanity’s fossil-fuel addiction.

GUSTAVO: I'm Gustavo Arellano.  You're listening to “The Times,” essential news from the L.A. Times. It's Monday, September 26th, 2022. 

GUSTAVO: Today, record wildfires, record drought, record heat, record rainfall, record floods, record hail, record records. When Mother Nature is setting records every year when it comes to doom and gloom, um, what can we do? It's times like these where we fall back on our monthly panel of peril, my colleagues of catastrophe, those De Maupassants of dread, who try to give us solace in these very, very dark and humid times. Yep, it's time for our “Masters of Disasters.”

Musica, Maestro!

GUSTAVO: In the wildfire chair, we have Alex Wigglesworth. Alex, what's your favorite fire song? “Light My Fire,” “Fire,” by Jimi Hendrix or “We Didn't Start the Fire” by Billy Joel.

ALEX WIGGLESWORTH: I guess Jimi Hendrix. I like the Bad Religion one. 

GUSTAVO: Ooh, that's a good one. Bad Religion. You can never go wrong with Bad Religion. Next up is our iron man of energy, Sammy Roth. Sammy, have you installed the solar panel on your forearm yet so you can have perpetual energy?

SAMMY ROTH: I'm just waiting for the final patent to be ready on that one, Gustavo. 

GUSTAVO: And finally our newest master, air quality reporter Tony Briscoe. Tony, what's the “it” look for face masks this fall? 

TONY BRISCOE: I think you can't do wrong with a good smoky eye here and there, you know. I think that's timeless.

GUSTAVO: Timeless classics always work like Coco Chanel and her little black dress. I love it. Welcome all of you masters, Alex, let's start with you. We've had record-breaking heat waves this summer, at least here on the West Coast. What gives? 

ALEX: Yeah, well, heat waves are nothing new for California, but scientists say we can expect them to become more frequent and more severe as the planet warms. And as you can imagine, there's been a lot of research linking high temperatures, especially prolonged stretches of high temperatures, to larger, faster-moving fires. Researchers say this is because the heat pulls moisture from vegetation, soils and from the atmosphere. It also causes more winter precipitation to fall as rain, rather than snow. That makes landscapes dry out more quickly and dry conditions can also make heat waves hotter. So typically temperatures cool down and humidity increases overnight. That makes fires lay down a little and gives firefighters a chance to make some progress in starting to contain them. But with heat waves like these, the overnight temperatures stay high, and that makes it a lot harder to get a hold of fires, and there's no chance for vegetation to recover any moisture, so it just keeps drying out.

GUSTAVO: So Sammy, going off what Alex said, we've seen record temperatures this year, so I'm sure that also means record energy demand. 

SAMMY: That's right. And, you know, one point on what Alex said, talking about overnight temperatures, the craziest stat I think I saw was that in Death Valley, they had an overnight low of 102 during the heatwave, which was the highest overnight low ever recorded in the world in the month of September, which is crazy.

GUSTAVO: Oy vey.

SAMMY: Yeah. Um, but no, definitely record energy demand on, on those sort of worst day of the heat wave, the main power grid in California set a record of more than 52,000 megawatts of demand. And for context, that was like close to 2,000 megawatts above the previous record, which is kind of nuts. And, and the next day would've been a record, too, if not for the day before. And basically what's happening here is people are using lots and lots of air conditioning, ‘cause it's so hot. And it's staying hot into the evening. So people are blasting it even after sundown, which is a big deal ‘cause we've got lots of solar power, but the sun goes down in the evening. And we've got some batteries, but not enough to supply all that energy. So we also had, in addition to the record power demand, these sort of requests for these Flex Alerts, right? Everyone saw this probably, there were 10 days in a row when the state of California was asking us, please, please, please, between the hours of 4 and 9 when the sun goes down, use less electricity. I don't think we'd ever seen 10 days in a row of that before.

GUSTAVO: And did those 10 days straight of Flex Alerts actually work? 

SAMMY: A little bit. We’ve had more and more of these Flex Alerts the last couple years, and they seem to be getting less effective. People sort of got used to them. The thing that did work is you might remember, I think it was Tuesday, the 7th, millions of people across the state got these phone alerts beamed right to their phone from, like, the Office of Emergency Services saying, “Please, right now, you know, we're in a crisis, use less electricity.” And that was sent out at the moment we were closest to rolling blackouts, of running out of power, and that actually worked, ‘cause it was new and different. There was like a 2,000-megawatt drop in demand within 20 minutes of that going out, and that was the thing that ultimately stopped rolling blackouts that day.

GUSTAVO: Yeah. Um, uh, I didn't get that phone alert because I have all my alerts turned off. So, um, I guess I could have sparked the blackout in California. Oops. But I'm glad it sounds like these alerts work. But as we move forward, as it gets hotter and hotter, will it even be humane to ask people in like the Imperial Valley, which is right on the U.S.-Mexico border, where it gets to be over 100 degrees day in, day out during the summer, is it even humane to ask them to turn off their air conditioner when it's the hottest? 

SAMMY: Yeah, that's a really tough one. I mean, we're already seeing mixed messaging around this. Like, lower your electric consumption, and at the same time do what you have to do to stay safe and not suffer heatstroke. And I mean, one, one thing with the air conditioning, nobody's being asked to turn them off. The request is typically to set it to 78, if you can, a hopefully livable temperature. But, yeah, this gets harder in the future. And, uh, it probably speaks to the fact that Flex Alerts in asking people to cut back is not a long-term solution to the problems on the power grid. 

GUSTAVO: So Alex, this might be the dumbest question ever, and that's saying a lot coming from me, but how do heat waves affect wildfires?

ALEX: Not dumb at all. So, ‘cause of the way they dry things out, heat waves are extending California's fire season. As we've talked about a lot on this show, the fire season is now starting earlier and it's lasting longer. This summer we've also seen how heat waves have helped individual fires grow larger, more quickly. California's second-largest fire of the year so far, the McKinney fire, killed four people. It started in late July during a record-breaking heatwave in Siskiyou County. In the days leading up to the fire, a nearby weather station had recorded six days of triple-digit temperatures that peaked at 111 degrees. And this is in Northern California. On three of those days, the heat surpassed the highest temperature ever recorded by the station. Then we had this more recent heat wave that experts are saying was California's hottest and longest on record for September, we saw another rash of large fires. One scientist told our reporters that the fact that this heat wave came unusually late in the year, made it even more dangerous for fire conditions because vegetation is drier than it was earlier in the summer, which is when temperatures would usually be hottest. The Mosquito fire, which has grown into the state's largest of the year so far, started during really hot, dry conditions in the Sacramento Valley foothills. The day that fire began, downtown Sacramento recorded its hottest temperature ever of 116 degrees. That broke a record set nearly 100 years ago. The fire’s grown to more than 63,000 acres and firefighters are still struggling to get the upper hand.

GUSTAVO: Tony, I'm wondering what all this heat and wildfire means for air quality.

TONY: Yeah. I mean, in a nutshell, it's not very good. Starting with, I guess, smog. I think that a lot of folks kind of forget that, you know, smog formation is very highly dependent on heat and sunshine. Two things that we really have in spades in Southern California. It's not just the tailpipe emissions from cars, and the smokestack emissions from industry, those are kind of like the ingredients, but it's really the heat and sunshine that are the energy that are really cooking everything into smog. So it's really no coincidence that the hottest times of the year we're observing the highest levels of smog. So on September 6th, 2020, you know, the hottest day on record in L.A. County, we had temperatures that rose to 120 degrees, and we experienced the highest levels of smog in a generation. In downtown Los Angeles, it rose to the highest levels in 26 years – 185 parts per billion, which is very unhealthy. It's twice the federal air quality guidelines. We haven't quite gotten there this year we've, you know, the highest temperature has been 111 degrees over in parts of the Valley, and it was 155 parts per billion, but, um, you know, that's still very unhealthy air quality. It's not safe for people to be breathing in.

GUSTAVO: Sammy, surely you've found some brilliant billionaire who's been able to harvest wildfire energy and smoke and turn it into the cleanest energy ever. Right? Right? 

SAMMY: I'm not sure there are any billionaires that brilliant, Gustavo, but happy to tell you about some of the other solutions out there.

GUSTAVO: OK, fine. Other solutions. We'll be right back.

GUSTAVO: So, Sammy, when you have these record-breaking heat waves, well, uh, it gets hot, duh. You were recently in Imperial Valley and that's where – boomer alert – “Star Wars” went for that desert scene in “Return of the Jedi” with the original Boba Fett. Just to give people a sense of how hot it could get down there, what was it like there during the heatwave? 

SAMMY: Well, I mean, it was, it was above 110 every day. But that's kind of normal for the Imperial Valley in the summer, too. It wasn't actually setting any records. So, I mean, we were out there starting our days at, you know, 5:30, 6 in the morning, and in fact, one of the farmers I was interviewing, I asked, what time could you be available tomorrow morning? He said, anytime after 5 a.m., I guess he has a morning meeting from 4 to 5 a.m. every day, ‘cause that's just what time you get started, ‘cause it's so hot. But I mean, one of the interesting things about the Imperial Valley, and one of the main reasons I was down there, they've got a lot of potential energy solutions to these problems we're facing on the power grid. 

They've got one of the strongest geothermal hotspots in the world down there by the Salton Sea. So this vast underground heat source that you can tap into and generate renewable energy, not just when it's sunny or windy, but 24 hours a day, and there's a lot more potential for that. They've got lithium down in that geothermal brine down there, which is one of these key ingredients for batteries in electric vehicles. And there's companies that are starting up efforts to mine it down there. Also, lots and lots of potential to build solar on those very flat sunny farmlands that they've got, ‘cause this is a big agriculture reason. And one of the other potential climate benefits of that is that they use more Colorado River water down there than anywhere else in the Western United States. More than the rest of California put together. Watering those farms down there in the Sonoran Desert. 

So if you cover some of those farms with solar panels, you might be able to cut back on using Colorado River water as well, and potentially have another benefit. So we're working on a story on that, but a lot of interesting stuff in Imperial.

GUSTAVO: A little bit of positivity from Sammy, but I want to hear more negativity. 

SAMMY: Oh, come on.

GUSTAVO: Ha. Yeah, yeah. But the theme for today is bad records, not good records. So Alex, I'm wondering about firefighters. What are your sources tell you about how bad it's getting for them during these heat waves fighting these fires?

ALEX: Yeah, I think it's just another factor that's adding to the dangers faced by firefighters and the stresses on staffing levels as we see the fire season growing longer and more intense. Earlier this month, there were seven firefighters hospitalized for heat-related illnesses while fighting the Root fire in Castaic. Again, during triple-digit temperatures. And at one point, the fire managers actually had to pull back ground crews because the heat was just too dangerous. And even though fewer acres have burned this year than last year or the year before, these fires have been destructive and deadly. Fires have killed nine people since late July

One factor is that some of them have moved so quickly that people haven't had much of a chance to escape. And then another is that several of these fires are suspected to have been started by utility infrastructure. And those fires tend to be pretty close to communities. So there hasn't been much time between when the fires began and when they reached homes. That was the case with the McKinney fire, the Fairview fire near Hemet and the Mosquito fire. And then the Mill fire started close to a neighborhood in Weed, California.

GUSTAVO: That's a real name folks: Weed, California. 

ALEX: It is. And I think it was actually named for this lumber mill that has since been taken over by a different company. But the fire might have been started by hot ash that was stored at that mill. And that was also near homes. So when firefighters are focused on getting people out of harm's way, going door to door, doing evacuations – which is always the No. 1  priority – they're not always able to build those containment lines as quickly. So that can also contribute to fires growing larger when they start close to these communities and burn homes really quickly.

GUSTAVO: Tony, we recently had you on to talk about how California has this ambitious plan to go carbon neutral by 2045. And given what Alex and Sammy are talking about with this unprecedented heat and wildfires getting more and more dangerous. Will that plan to go carbon neutral in California literally go down in flames?

TONY: That's a very real possibility because we're not on track to meet with our forestry goals. I mean, as has already been mentioned in a hotter, drier climate, forests are turning into firewood. You just have a lot of dry, dead material that turns everything into a tinder box. And so, we're really seeing unprecedented levels of wildfires. I think no one needs reminding of the 2020 wildfire season, where we had record acreage burn. And I think that the state of California, specifically the California Air Resources Board, has acknowledged the need to prevent all of our forests and other vegetation, which is storing carbon, from literally burning and re-releasing all of the carbon that they've stored during their lifetimes. And, you know, I decided in a recent article to kind of focus on our giant sequoias. I mean, these are literally the largest living organisms — not just trees – in the world, and, you know, some of them are over 3,000 years old. And we're seeing record mortality, where over 10% of these trees have died in recent years of their population and they’re native here and they only grow in the Western Sierra. So, I mean, I don't know what that tells you that, you know, you have a tree that's over 3,000 years old and now they're just now kind of starting to fade away. But the thing is, a long story short, that right now we need to dramatically increase our forest management. The California Air Resources Board is calling for more than 2 million acres to be treated because that's kind of seen as the tipping point, if we can do more prescribed burning and forest thinning up to 2 million acres annually, we could start to really stave off these really large mega-fires that we're seeing. Problem is we're only treating right now 250,000 acres. So that's a tenfold increase. So, right now it's like we're training for a triathlon, but we're only running a 5k.

GUSTAVO: Oy vey. Sammy hasn't some energy billionaire developed a giant vacuum, like in “Spaceballs,” just to suck up all that bad air from the sky? 

SAMMY: I mean, you joke: Long term, we're probably going to need some carbon capture. So actually pulling carbon out of the atmosphere – one part of a larger portfolio of solutions that mostly involves not emitting – but, but yeah, we're going to need something like that.

GUSTAVO: Yeah. And Tony actually talked about carbon capture the last time he was on “The Times,” but you know, here we joke, we kid, we kvetch, but is this just our new reality, just break records every year from now on? And if that's true, does a record even mean anything anymore? Let's get Sartre in here, at least Socratic. What is beauty? What is truth? What is disaster after disaster after disaster?

SAMMY: I mean, I would say yes, the records matter. They're a reminder that we have a serious crisis to deal with. Yeah, we're going to, we're going to keep breaking them. I mean, even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, which we're not going to do, it's going to keep getting hotter for a while. So I think we should keep paying attention to it.

ALEX: Yeah, so one climate scientist I speak with a lot for stories, Park Williams, he's at UCLA, the way he likes to put it is that the dice are increasingly loaded toward larger, more destructive fires. ‘Cause a lot of the conditions fueling these fires are going to continue to get worse. It doesn't mean that every fire will be a record-breaking fire, or that every year will be a record-breaking fire season, but it does mean that trends will continue to favor fires and seasons that do break records. But I think it's also worth noting that there are different ways of measuring these records. Like, you know, is it how many acres burn? That might continue to go up, but if we can get to the point where fewer homes are burning, fewer people are dying, fires are burning with less severity, so that forests and other ecosystems can recover and even benefit from them, then, you know, just having a lot of acres burning, that's really not so bad.

GUSTAVO: Maybe we could get to a point where we have least-worst records, Tony, like maybe the future could be like, oh, yeah, this is the least polluted day since all those horrible records started, I don't know where I'm going with this … records. Tony, do we need masks now forever and ever more?

TONY: Masks are never a bad thing. You know, I highly encourage masks. So I mean, I feel like we're living in a new normal, right? I mean, more and more we're seeing these records fall and the benchmarks are getting new. And I think that as the climate continues to warm, I feel like we're just really paving the way for something that we have not seen before. We know that another record is going to fall. It's just which one. And we're headed in that direction, so I think that all we can do is prepare ourselves for those scenarios and adapt, essentially.

GUSTAVO: And Sammy, if California is getting hotter, the state is pushing for carbon neutrality and encouraging electric vehicles and more renewable energy, uh, where's all this electricity going to come from? 

SAMMY: It's a really, really hard problem. We are in a spot right now where we've got to  build solar and wind and other clean energy and also expand the power grid to accommodate that at a faster rate than it's ever been done before. And if that doesn't work out, then yeah, we're going be ending up in more of these situations with not enough power ‘cause the electric grid is basically failing on us. It's a hard one to solve, but it needs to happen to deal with the ultimate source of these heat waves, which is climate change.

GUSTAVO:  We'll be right back.

GUSTAVO: And now comes our traditional ending to “Masters of Disasters,” where we ask our masters. What's bringing them joy during these dark and hot and increasingly humid and smoggy times. Sammy, let's start with you. What's bringing you joy right now? 

SAMMY: Well, the Dodgers clinched the division the other night with 21 games left to play in the season, which is pretty crazy. And, uh, I am already daydreaming about being at the first game of the playoffs on October 11 at Dodger Stadium.

GUSTAVO: Yeah, hopefully they'll set good records as well. Tony, what's bringing you joy? 

TONY: Well, my landlord is, uh, fixing my air conditioning unit. So I have survived the record heat wave or, uh, this really prolonged heat wave. But, uh, I will have air conditioning in time for the winter. So… very thankful.

SAMMY: You're lucky you have AC, Tony. I've been sweating in my no-AC apartment. 

GUSTAVO: Oy vey! Paletas, folks, paletas. They are the eternal AC. And finally, Alex, what's bringing you joy? 

ALEX: Yeah. So our newsroom union just entered negotiations over our contract, which expires in November, and it's been super-inspiring to see all our members come together and be really committed to working toward a strong agreement. We're seeing more enthusiasm and participation than ever before. It's been really energizing to feel that excitement and strength, especially given how depressingly hot it’s been.

GUSTAVO: Yeah, you want to talk about a good record? There's more interest in unions in the United States since at any point since the 1960s: Live free, work union. Records!  And that's it for our “Masters of Disasters,” Sammy Roth covers energy, Alex Wigglesworth on the wildfire beat and Tony Briscoe, our air quality reporter master. Thank you all.

ALEX: Thank you.

SAMMY: Thanks.

GUSTAVO: And that's it for this episode of “The Times,” essential news from the L.A. Times. Shannon Lin and Ashlea Brown were the jefas on this episode and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. Like what you’re listening to? Then make sure to follow “The Times” on whatever platform you use. And to fake-quote Vonnegut: Wear sunscreen. I’m Gustavo Arellano. We’ll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.