Photo: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press
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California’s deadly wildfires joined hurricanes as the nation’s costliest natural disasters in 2018, contributing to a total $91 billion in losses from major catastrophes last year and underscoring a sober trend of increasing devastation over recent decades, the federal government reported Wednesday.
The damage ranks as the fourth greatest in terms of annual losses of a billion dollars or more since record-keeping began in 1980, according to government figures. The rising toll is at least partly driven by global warming, federal scientists said.
NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which jointly announced the disaster figures, also reported that 2018 was the Earth’s fourth hottest year over a span of at least 140 years. The temperature data, normally released in January but postponed because of the government shutdown, shows that the past five years have been the five warmest in modern history. Eighteen of the 19 hottest years have occurred since 2001.
The rapidly increasing temperature has, in turn, influenced worldwide weather, not only leading to bruising heat spells but increasing evaporation, which puts more moisture in the atmosphere to fuel bigger storms and ripening the conditions for wildfire on the ground.
“It’s safe to say that we are seeing more rain and heat events,” said Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring section at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
Western wildfires last year caused $24 billion of damage, almost all of it coming from big blazes in California, according to the government. Among the most destructive were Butte County’s Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and became the deadliest fire in state history, and the Mendocino Complex Fire, which burned 459,000 acres across Northern California, becoming the state’s largest ever.
The fire damage last year vastly exceeds the $18 billion of losses from major wildfires in 2017, which had previously been the costliest fire year, according to the data.
In addition to fires, Hurricane Michael, which struck the Gulf Coast on Oct. 10, accounted for $25 billion in damage last year while Hurricane Florence, which hit the eastern seaboard Sept. 13, was responsible for $24 billion of losses.
Other billion-dollar-plus disasters in 2018 included drought in the Great Plains, tornadoes in the Southeast and winter storms in New England.
The total number of natural disasters nationwide last year with damages of $1 billion or more was 14. That compares to an average 6.2 such events between 1980 and 2013, accounting for inflation.
The distinction of most devastating year remains with 2017. The 16 disasters of $1 billion or more that year include hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria as well as the wildfires in Wine Country. Total losses were $306 billion.
Last year’s disaster toll came as the average global temperature in 2018 was 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average, according to NOAA. The U.S. was also hotter, about 1.5 degrees above last century’s mean, with California’s year among its five warmest since record-keeping began in 1880.
Going forward, Arndt, with NOAA, said not every year will set a new heat record but the trend will probably continue, likening the trajectory to “riding up an escalator over time and then jumping up and down while you’re on that escalator.”
Federal scientists have determined that global warming is being driven by greenhouse gas pollution, largely from fossil fuels. President Trump, however, has outright denied the phenomenon. Despite warnings that rising heat could make parts of the planet uninhabitable by the end of the century, the president has spurned efforts to regulate emissions.
In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, Trump praised the U.S. for becoming the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. He also didn’t mention emissions-free energy, nor the changing climate.
On Wednesday, Democrats in the House began hearings on climate change, though significant moves to address the problem are not expected to win needed bipartisan support.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/California-wildfires-hurricanes-make-2018-13595014.php.