Fire & Ice, on the same day

The past week has been a nightmare for the thousands of people in California who have been displaced from them homes, many of them permanently.  And while some disasters are highly localized, the smoke from the fires has covered much of the state, making it impossible for anyone who goes outside to forget or ignore them.
The timing of the Camp Fire in Paradise, coming just before the holidays, couldn’t have been more awful.  But it is also truly bizarre in so many ways that illustrate the primary message that Al Gore stated in his film over a decade ago:  it’s not global warming; it’s global weirdening.
The area around Paradise is normally one of the wettest in the state, in terms of annual rainfall.  It is also known for being extremely windy.  The fire there would not have been unusual had it occurred in August or September.  But a wind-driven wildfire there in November is akin to snow in San Francisco.
The relative humidity the day of the fire was 16% — that was a record low for the date, as was every day that week.  November is normally a damp and cold month everywhere in Northern California, but in the Central Valley even more so.  It doesn’t need to rain much, just enough to get the soil wet.  Then, the stagnant fall air holds the moisture close to the ground.  The fog can stick around all day, for weeks.
Instead, before the fire started last week, we had multiple days of dry wind and sunshine.  On the farm, all of our fall crops were growing much more quickly than usual.
The fire changed the weather overnight, as fire has been doing repeatedly over the last few years in our area.  The smoke on Friday blocked the sun entirely, keeping the extremely dry air from warming up much.  Just like that, winter had arrived.  When darkness came around 4:30, the temperature plummeted.  By 8 pm it was already 37 degrees, and by dawn on Saturday it was 29.
It’s not unusual for it to be cold in November.  But when it’s damp, high humidity keeps the temperature from dropping below the dew point, which is much higher than the freezing point.  The freeze on Saturday was  the earliest I have ever seen in 26 years of farming, by over two weeks.
The frost was not a huge economic loss for us:  it killed our last planting of Green Beans and finished off the tomato plants that were already dying.  Green beans are never a sure thing in November for us, but it’s usually a heavy rain that does them in.
With the smoke hanging around along with the dry air, the freezing weather has continued.  As of today, we’ve had three nights of frost out of four.  Nevertheless, the weather since the fire started has felt more “normal” than before it.  But that’s primarily due to cognitive dissonance — the mind forgets that it is smoke and not fog or clouds that is keeping it chilly all day.  Until you take a deep breath or notice the skin on your hands is flaking and cracked from the bone-dry air.
There’s hope in the near-future for a nice storm that should end fire season and clear out the smoke.  But you can do your part to make sure the rain actually arrives:  plan for an outdoor Thanksgiving celebration and a hike afterwards 🙂


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