California Wildfires Emitted as Much Carbon as the State’s Entire Power Sector in 2018

The Camp Fire burning Butte County in California to a crisp last month.
The Camp Fire burning Butte County in California to a crisp last month.
Photo: Getty

We know California wildfires can be deadly: Look no further than the Camp Fire in northern California that killed at least 88 people last month. A new analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey reminds us that these disasters can also be a slow killer through the pollution and greenhouse gases they emit.

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On Friday, the Department of Interior announced new findings that show that this year’s wildfire season in California released the equivalent of 68 million tons of carbon dioxide. That’s roughly how much carbon the state’s electricity sector releases in an entire year. Not even Secretary Ryan Zinke can deny that it is a big number.

“We know that wildfires can be deadly and cost billions of dollars,” he said, in a press release, “but this analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey also shows just how bad catastrophic fires are for the environment and for the public’s health.”

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No mention of climate change there, but sure. Wildfires are both a climate and a human health hazard, emitting 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year around the world between 1996 and 2016, according to global 2017 study. In California, the result of the recent deadly wildfire seasons is air quality so poor that it may already be shortening people’s lives, especially low income and communities of color who are most vulnerable to these events.

The Department of Interior appears interested in helping prevent these wildfires from sparking up by improving land management strategies (and, no, that doesn’t mean more raking). It would also help to recognize the reality of climate change, which wildfires are only making worse.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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Bloomberg has an excellent opinion piece today:

Climate Denialism’s Stupidity Is the Point — And Its Weakness

The quote below by Earther kinda falls into Trump’s conflation of climate change with air quality vis a vis hazardous air pollutants as defined by HAPs (hazardous air pollutants):

No mention of climate change there, but sure. Wildfires are both a climate and a human health hazard, emitting 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year around the world between 1996 and 2016, according to global 2017 study. In California, the result of the recent deadly wildfire seasons is air quality so poor that it may already be shortening people’s lives, especially low income and communities of color who are most vulnerable to these events.

Previously out of nowhere, President Donald Trumps says (quoted in the Bloomberg opinion piece):

You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small.

Bloomberg opinion haver retorts:

Yet to parse the words is to miss the point. The paragraph is pure misdirection, conflating carbon emissions with “dirty” air and thereby casting the U.S. as “clean” (and Trump isn’t exactly helping on that score anyway; see this and this.) Ditto the whataboutism regarding China and Russia, as the U.S. is still the world’s second biggest emitter of carbon, and Trump walked away from an international climate agreement.

And then going back to the subject analysis of this post, USGS via big swinging DoI dick Ryan Zinke says:

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke today announced that according to data analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the 2018 wildfire season in California is estimated to have released emissions equivalent to roughly 68 million tons of carbon dioxide. This number equates to about 15 percent of all California emissions, and it is on par with the annual emissions produced by generating enough electricity to power the entire state for a year. The recent Camp and Woolsey fires have produced emissions equivalent to roughly 5.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.

So it’s important to not add more words to the word salad, if the word salad is tossed by Trump and his team of administrators looking to get the government out of the human health and environment protection game. It’s also important to get numbers to match between original document and review post.

Trump is trying to make carbon emissions not part of the air toxics/HAPs family of pollutants - as to not regulate carbon emissions. Zinke is trying to say that those trees would have been better off felled and turned into dimensional lumber and plywood - instead of being preserved for environmental protection purposes. Despite a big chunk of the land doesn’t fall under government ownership.

Typically, US wildfires emit around 300 million metric tons give or take fires season severity every year. Or about 5 to 10 percent of total carbon emissions from human sources. This information was published by USFS, which falls under USDA. Zinke should give Sonny Perdue a call.

edit to add: the “around” 300 million metric tons of carbon emissions from wildfires comes from this USFS source:

https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=110580