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Gov. Jerry Brown warns climate change has us 'on the road to hell.' California's wildfires show he's on to something

Gov. Jerry Brown warns climate change has us 'on the road to hell.' California's wildfires show he's on to something
Gov. Jerry Brown has called the wildfire devastation in California the "new normal." (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

When he's lecturing about climate change, Gov. Jerry Brown sounds like a street-corner preacher shouting: "Repent. Change your ways. The end is near."

I envision him in a sackcloth robe, arms flailing and chanting at the wind.

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But it's nearly Christmas and wicked wildfires are devastating California beauty. So Brown is obviously on to something.

This traditionally is the season for mudslides and flooding. Until now, no major wildfire has ever ravished California in December, at least since the state began keeping records in 1932. Our fire season has reliably been summer and early fall.

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Ominously, of the 20 largest California wildfires since 1932, most — 14 — have occurred since 2000. The five largest all have.

Brown warned about this in July, long before the October wine country wildfires, the most destructive in state history, and the current Southern California blazes.

"Climate change is real," he warned a state Senate committee. "It is a threat to organized human existence. Maybe not in my life. I'll be dead. What am I, 79?"

Then turning and facing the packed audience, Brown continued:

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"A lot of you people are going to be alive. And you're going to be alive in a horrible situation. You're going to see mass migration, vector diseases, forest fires, Southern California burning up. That's real, guys."

They didn't have to wait long for Brown's prophecy to come true.

Last Saturday, surveying the fire devastation in Ventura, Brown called it "the new normal," declaring: "This could be something that happens every year or every few years."

The onetime Jesuit seminarian sounded downright spiritual Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" while criticizing President Trump for calling global warming a hoax and pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord.

"I don't think President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God," Brown said.

And in Paris this week, at yet another international climate conference attended by the governor, he pointed to California's wildfires as a warning.

"This is an example of what we can expect," he said. "The fires are burning in California. They'll be burning in France, burning all around the world" without a significant reduction in carbon emissions.

"The world is not on the road to heaven. It's on the road to hell."

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"He sounds ticked off, and I don't blame him," says Scott Weaver, senior climate scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. "God bless him."

Neither Brown nor anyone else is claiming that California's escalating wildfires are totally caused by global warming. But it's a contributing factor, they say.

"I understand that he's being hyperbolic and ultra-dramatic," Weaver says. "But when he says 'all hell is breaking loose,' the governor is right-on. There's a lot of evidence that we're seeing an increase in extremes of weather and climate."

California examples: sustained drought, then one of the wettest winters on record. Now it's suddenly dry again in the rainy season.

There's a "perfect storm" going on, Weaver says. It's global warming combined with a La Niña weather pattern that's "exacerbating the situation."

The scientist adds: "As Bruce Springsteen said, 'You can't start a fire without a spark.' The spark is obviously not related to climate change. But the conditions which exist for burning are consistent with climate change."

The conditions for fire destruction also include people moving into flammable woodlands full of hot-burning chaparral, oaks and pines. And in many of these Southern California blazes, there's also a dreadful Santa Ana wind bellows.

The Thomas fire — California's fifth largest on record at 237,500 acres as of Wednesday morning — seems to have charred half of Ventura County and a significant portion of Santa Barbara County. At last count, it had destroyed 921 structures.

It surrounded the wonderful little town where I grew up, Ojai. This time of year it's not uncommon for snow to blanket the adjacent mountains. Now there's just fire ash. But the town, with its historic Spanish-style arcade, escaped.

"Everybody is very thankful and a lot of people think we came through a miracle," says Perry Van Houten, a reporter for the Ojai Valley News, where I launched my newspaper career long ago as a teen, melting lead for the linotype machine, cleaning presses and writing high school sports for 10 cents an inch.

"There are signs all over town thanking the firefighters."

Ojai has a scary fire history. It was largely destroyed by fire in 1917 and rebuilt. In 1948, a fire leaped down the mountain and threatened the town. My family evacuated. Around 20 homes were destroyed. Not ours.

Around 10 million people lived in California then. Now there are about 40 million, providing more homes to burn. But we can't stop building them. There's a shortage of affordable housing.

We can, however, be more careful about where we build. We can build on top of each other, even if it's against the California ranch-house lifestyle. We can pay for more fire protection.

Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, advocates forcing developers and home buyers to pay for 24-hour fire patrols in extremely risky areas.

"If you want to put a $5-million house in the middle of the Santa Monica Mountains, make it a $5.1-million house that's fire protected," Edmiston says.

"Jerry Brown's point is a good one. It's the new normal. All of us have to adjust. We can't pray that the heavens are going to roll back the clock."

Amen.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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