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Q&A: Chico State Professor Mark Stemen On Climate-Driven Wildfires, Resiliency Hubs

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CSU Chico / Noah Berger
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AP Photo
From L-R: CSU Chico geography professor Mark Stemen, and Firefighter battling the Dixie Dire.

Climate scientists have expected extreme events – like massive wildfires – to appear as the planet warms. But the pace of those events is causing alarm even to those who teach climate science.

NSPR's Andre Byik recently interviewed Chico State geography professor Mark Stemen. Stemen, who also sits on the city of Chico's Climate Action Commission, started the conversation by explaining the climate modeling he's done with his students over recent years.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On climate modeling

When we were scenario building a couple of years ago, we were talking about these big, what we call "megafires." Giant fires that were going to hit Butte County that were in excess of 50,000 acres. And now we have fires that are getting that every day.

The speed at which these things are happening is, I think, surprising to me. It's happening far faster than we predicted it would happen even 10 years ago. I really don't see any reason for it to stop. It happened last year; it happened the year before. It's going to happen next year and the year after that, and the year after that.

People say that we have to adapt to a new normal, but I don't know that there's going to necessarily settle down to what we would even consider a normal pattern. So, the uncertainty is the thing that is most disconcerting about the situation.

On what’s driving wildfires

Fire is part of the ecology of the planet. We were a burning ball of fire, and then it cooled down, and we got land, and then we eventually got trees, but we still had fire that whole time. So, it's not that anything is new about the fire. What's new is the ecology is that we now have forests that are much drier than they've ever been. And that's a product of climate change.

And we've known this. We've said this is going to happen, and that's not going back. That's changing even more. Looking forward into the future, the recognition that these types of things are going to continue to happen – these extreme events.

When we think about climate change, the most important thing to remember is that we're really just talking about heat as energy. We're putting more heat and more energy into the weather systems. And we're driving greater and greater extremes. We're getting really dries. And, pretty soon, we're going to get a really wet.

On the effects of climate change

While we may not be able to reverse the changes that have been made, we can keep further changes from happening. Every tenth of a degree is massive human life. We need to keep every bit of warming we can from happening.

We have three choices here. We either mitigate the change, adapt to the change, or suffer. The question is, what is going to be the balance between those three? We have an opportunity now to minimize the suffering as much as possible. That's what we need to be focusing on. Every degree is life. We need to keep fighting from this getting worse.

What should community members be thinking about after fire burns through a neighboring community or their own?

On community response to wildfires

I think the best of us comes out in these situations. Humans are good despite all that you hear. And you see it in these situations and the outpouring of support for the community of Greenville.

But what we need to be thinking about is thinking about that before it happens and preparing ourselves. Again, I think back to Paradise. There's plenty of things we could have done ahead of time to start getting our resilience up. If we just are always responding to the back end, we start wearing down. And you see that in Chico. Over time, that kind of response really erodes people's ability to empathize with these situations, and we need to work on that ability.

On working on that ability

A lot of folks will say, you know, they talk about this idea of compassion fatigue. And there's been some interesting research done on this. Some of the most exciting stuff, there was a great article – compassion doesn't fatigue – written for a veterinary journal. We don't even think about this. But some of those folks really have to deal with these issues. And what they point out is it's not compassion that fatigues, but it's empathy.

And they've done psychological brain scans. And it's really two different parts of your brain. And it's the need to work in empathy. It's empathetic distress that we often deal with. There's plenty of ways that you can work to increase your empathy in these situations.

On resiliency hubs

Resiliency is the ability to respond to a situation and to weather distress – a disturbance, as they would call it in ecology – and snap back to the original form. A resiliency hub is the same idea of thinking about it from a community basis. The concept of a resilience hub is being championed by the sustainability network of urban professionals across the country in big cities trying to figure out, OK, what are we going to do in these situations?

They are both a disaster response place and an emergency preparedness place. A big part of resiliency hubs is they are community-based. They're government funded, but based in the communities themselves, so the communities make their own decisions. They often will tell you in disaster preparedness that your neighbor is your first line of defense. And one of the most important things about a resilience hub is getting more neighbors and getting more defenders.

But the other opportunities for resilience hubs are to start thinking about preparedness and doing it in such a way to then start working on these questions of compassion stamina. A good example of something like that would be to start preparing go-bags for their surrounding communities. We know that there's going to be fires, we know there's going to be fires up in Cohasset. We know there are going to be fires in Forest Ranch. What if we started preparing go-bags for those folks? Especially those low-income folks who are not able to put together go-bags.

But it also would be a way to build the larger community. If Cohasset is going to burn, why don't we set up some foster relationships with people down in Chico, so you know where you're going to go? Or in Forest Ranch, or in any of these communities. This idea that it's a place in case of an emergency, but really building for future emergencies that we know are going to come. All while also increasing the ability for our compassion – or empathy – to get us through those rough times.