Explainer: Drought creates a perfect storm for wildfires in U.S. West

Firefighters battle a fast-moving wildfire in Goleta, California, July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, New Mexico (Reuters) – Bigger and more “explosive” wildfires are raging across the U.S. West, with the area burned in Colorado already four times the size of last year’s total, as rising temperatures, drought and a buildup of forest fuels supercharge blazes.

So far this year, 3.3 million acres have burned in U.S. forests, just below the figure for this time in 2017. Last year was the second worst year on record with 10 million acres blackened, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

Around 2,600 homes have been destroyed nationally by fires year to date, according to Forest Service data. Nine U.S. wildland firefighters have been killed up to this week, compared with 14 killed in all of 2017, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. It was not immediately possible to verify how many civilians have died this year.

The number of wildfires larger than 25,000 acres on U.S. Forest Service land in the West nearly quadrupled in the decade to 2014, compared with the 1980s, according to data from the Department of the Interior.

The number of U.S. homes destroyed in wildfires almost tripled to 12,242 in 2017 from the previous year, according to U.S. Forest Service data, largely due to giant blazes in California that killed 43 people.

DROUGHT TURBOCHARGING FIRES

What’s driving the wildfires is exceptional drought conditions in large areas of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Severe droughts used to happen every four to five decades but are becoming frequent. In New Mexico, such dry periods have occurred in five years since 2000, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Kerry Jones in Albuquerque.

Nearly all of California faces abnormally dry or drought conditions, according to the Drought Monitor agency.

The state has had its worst start to the fire period in a decade, with 220,421 acres burned through Thursday morning, according to NIFC data.

In Colorado, preliminary figures show 431,540 acres have burned year to date, nearly four times the 111,667 acres blackened during all of 2017, according to NIFC data.

By August, the risk of large wildfires will be at normal levels in much of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain areas, thanks to a forecast for strong summer rains, but risk levels will remain above normal in California through October, according to NIFC data.

RISING TEMPERATURES

Rising average temperatures in the West are also stoking fires. Areas such as northern New Mexico and southern Colorado have been in long-term drought since around 2000.

“We’re in a global (temperature) change drought,” said Peter Brown, director of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Higher temperatures have helped extend the period of wildfires by 60 to 80 days each year, NIFC spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said.

“We’re not calling it a fire season anymore, we’re referring to a fire year,” she said.

An expected 1.8 Fahrenheit (1C) temperature rise by mid-century is expected to double or triple the annual acreage burned from a current 7 million acres average, according to a study by the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture.

UNHEALTHY FORESTS

A fire needs fuel to burn, and there is a lot of that in the U.S. West’s overgrown and often unhealthy forests.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. government pursued a fire suppression policy that sharply reduced the acreage burned but caused forests to become choked with underbrush and trees, allowing invasive species to enter. In the southwest, bark beetles have killed billions of conifers now providing fuel for infernos.

In California, invasive species like cheatgrass offer the perfect fuel for fire to spread. Millions of trees and bushes killed by California’s 2012-2017 drought are another fuel source.

“TSUNAMIS OF FLAME”

Southeast Colorado’s Spring Creek fire, the second largest in the state’s history at 108,000 acres, is an example of the kind of “perfect fire storm” menacing the West, said firefighter Ben Brack, 42, information officer on the blaze.

Burning at thousands of degrees with 300-foot-high “tsunamis of flame” fanned by erratic winds, Brack called it the most “explosive” fire he has seen. The fire has destroyed upwards of 148 homes, according to Costilla County authorities.

Brack compares such blazes to hurricanes or tornadoes for firefighters’ inability to stop them.

Fire crews get people out of the way, save what homes they can, and create fire breaks many miles from the flames. These fires may only be fully extinguished by the first snows of winter, Brack said.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

New Wildfire erupts in northern California, kills one, forcing evacuations, spreading fast

An air tanker drops retardant on wildfire called "BentonFire" near off Benton Road and Crams Corner Drive in this image on social media in Anza in Riverside County, California, U.S., July 4, 2018. Courtesy California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection/Handout via REUTERS

By Dan Whitcomb and Keith Coffman

LOS ANGELES/DENVER (Reuters) – A wildfire in northern California killed one person, destroyed buildings, forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from nearby communities and prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency.

The Klamathon Fire broke out on Thursday and, within hours, spread from an initial 1,000 acres to 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in an advisory.

One person has died due to the fire, a spokeswoman for the agency said on Friday, without providing any details.

The blaze destroyed an unknown number of structures and forced residents in the small communities of Hornbrook, Hilt and Colestein Valley to flee as flames crossed Interstate 5 near the California and Oregon border, local media reported.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the area, allowing state resources to be devoted to fighting the wildfire and keeping people safe.

FILE PHOTO: Fire is seen in El Jebel, Colorado, U.S., July 4, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken July 4, 2018. Kim Doyle Wille/via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: Fire is seen in El Jebel, Colorado, U.S., July 4, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken July 4, 2018. Kim Doyle Wille/via REUTERS

The Klamathon Fire was one of more than three dozen wildfires that firefighters were battling in California and across the U.S. West during an unusually active fire season.

Fires have razed through more than 2.8 million acres in the United States this year through Thursday, above the average of about 2.4 million acres for the same period over the last 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Firefighting efforts across the region have been hampered by blistering temperatures, low humidity and erratic winds.

CONTAINMENT

Crews in Northern California tried on Thursday to cut containment lines around the County Fire, which has already burned across some 135 square miles. Nine structures have been destroyed and some 100 homes were said to be in danger.

That blaze, which broke out on Saturday in steep, inaccessible terrain about 45 miles northwest of Sacramento and spans more than 88,000 acres, has so far largely burned away from populated areas. It was 37 percent contained early on Friday, officials said.

The weather will become hotter and drier into the weekend, Cal Fire warned.

In Colorado, nine major wildfires have razed through more than 216,000 acres, according to the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center.

Crews battling the Spring Fire got a respite from hot temperatures on Thursday, with rain forecast for the region, although heavy downpours could trigger flash flooding over the burn scar, according to InciWeb, a federal wildfire website.

Near Aspen, the Lake Christine fire has enveloped more than 5,000 acres and destroyed three homes in the town of EL Jebel, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said. The fire has not been contained and some 500 people have been ordered to evacuate.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Larry King and Bernadette Baum)

Firefighters make progress on Northern California wildfire

Flames from the County Fire, covering Yolo and Napa counties, east of Lake Berryessa, California, U.S. are pictured in this July 3, 2018, handout photo. CAL FIRE/Handout via REUTERS

By Dan Whitcomb and Keith Coffman

LOS ANGELES/DENVER (Reuters) – Firefighters in Northern California have made progress on a stubborn blaze west of Sacramento, allowing some residents to return to their homes after they were evacuated.

The so-called County Fire has consumed 86,000 acres (35,000 hectares) of grass, brush and dense scrub oak as of late on Wednesday, an increase of about 5 percent from earlier in the day, California Fire said.

Some residents were allowed to return home after being evacuated while the fire threatened some 1,500 homes, Cal Fire said in a statement on Wednesday.

A force of almost 3,500 firefighters widened its containment lines around to 27 percent up from 25 percent earlier in the day, the agency said.

Firefighters have been challenged by strong wind gusts, steep inaccessible terrain and dry vegetation as they have fought the unrelenting wildfire that began on Saturday.

No structures have been damaged so far, officials said.

The United States is experiencing an unusually active fire season, with the risk considered well above normal for many Western states, according to federal forecasters.

Temperatures in the area of the California blaze will reach close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) on Thursday, the National Weather Service said, warning of widespread haze and areas of smoke.

Wildfires have burned through nearly 2.5 million acres in the United States from Jan. 1 through Monday, well above an average of about 2.3 million for the same period over the last 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Colorado, firefighters faced high temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds on Wednesday as they battled eight major blazes that have torched more than 140,000 acres in the drought-stricken state.

The largest wildfire, the Spring Fire, has consumed 95,739 acres in southern Colorado, destroying more than 100 homes, forcing evacuations of several communities and closing a road. That fire was just 5 percent contained.

The Spring Fire is the second-largest fire on record in Colorado, officials said.

Jesper Joergensen, a 52-year-old Danish national, is suspected of starting the fire and is being held on first-degree arson charges, the Costilla County Sheriff’s Office said. He is in the country illegally and may face deportation, police said.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Man arrested for starting Colorado wildfire burning over 38,000 acres

Flames rise past a ridge during efforts to contain the Spring Creek Fire in Costilla County, Colorado, U.S. June 27, 2018. Costilla County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

TAOS, New Mexico (Reuters) – A man was arrested on Saturday on charges of starting a forest fire in Colorado that has destroyed structures and forced hundreds to evacuate their homes in one of dozens of wildfires raging across the drought-hit U.S. southwest.

Jesper Joergensen, 52, was taken into custody for suspected arson that started the Springs Fire, the most active of around 10 blazes in Colorado, the state hardest hit by fires, according to Costilla County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.

Joergensen is not a U.S. citizen and will be handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement once he has faced arson charges, said a Costilla County detention officer. The officer could not immediately say what nationality Joergensen held.

The fire has scorched over 38,000 acres (15,378 hectares) between the towns of Fort Garland and La Veta in southern Colorado, forcing more mandatory evacuations of homes and ranches on Saturday in a mountainous area of public and private land. The fire continued to grow, fueled by temperatures in the mid 80s Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) and had zero percent containment as of Saturday afternoon.

Air tankers and helicopters dropped fire retardant and water on the blaze. Authorities asked evacuated residents not to fly drones to check on their properties as the devices posed a danger to aircraft and would force them to be grounded.

An unknown number of structures were consumed by the fire, said Bethany Urban, a public information officer. No injuries have been reported.

Gusty winds, single-digit humidity and hot temperatures have fueled the fires and could ignite new blazes in the U.S. West, the National Weather Service said in several warnings.

The largest wildfire in Colorado, the 416 Fire, has charred almost 47,000 acres about 13 miles (21 km) north of Durango in the southwest corner of the state, and is 37 percent contained, said public information officer Brandalyn Vonk.

About 10 smaller wildfires were burning in New Mexico and three in Arizona, with much of the two states suffering extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

All but the northeastern corner of Colorado is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Grant McCool)

Fast-spreading California wildfire forces evacuations in Yolo County

Smoke rises in distance from County Fire near County Road 63 and Highway 16 in Rumsey Canyon in this #CountyFire image on social media in Brooks, California, U.S., July 2, 2018. Courtesy California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection/Handout via REUTERS

By Jon Herskovitz

(Reuters) – A fast-growing wildfire that broke out over the weekend in Northern California, fueled by parched lands and high winds, prompted evacuations on Sunday and sent ash spewing over a wide area of the region, officials said.

More than 1,200 people were fighting the so-called County Fire, located about 75 miles (120 kms) northeast of San Francisco. It has blazed through around 32,500 acres (13,150 hectares) and was 2 percent contained as of Sunday evening, officials said.

The sky turned orange in parts of the San Francisco Bay area due to the blaze, with many residents waking up to a thin coating of ash on windows, cars and lawns.

Residents in some rural areas of Yolo County were ordered to leave their homes as the flames advanced, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

“It’s going to be headed into some populated areas of small communities in the near future if it is not curtailed,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said in an interview.

As of June 29 of this year, wildfires have burned through nearly 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) in the United States, well above the average of about 2 million acres for the same calendar period over the last 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a monitoring group.

Parched conditions in the U.S. West and Southwest have led to a rash of wildfires this year, with about 40 major blazes burning as of the end of June in an area from Washington State to New Mexico, the agency said.

More than 9,000 firefighters and 100 helicopters have been dispatched to battle the various blazes, cutting containment lines on the ground and dropping fire retardant from the air, the agency said.

California and Colorado have been hard hit this year, with the largest wildfire in Colorado, the 416 Fire, charring almost 47,000 acres about 13 miles (21 km) north of Durango in the southwestern part of the state. It is 37 percent contained, according to state data.

An ongoing drought across much of the Southwest and West and a ridge of warm air that can produce high winds have made the area susceptible to wildfires, said Scott Marsh, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

“In a drought-stricken area, once you get a spark, it is off to the races,” he said.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Paul Simao & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Wildfires threaten Northern California homes, national park in New Mexico

FILE PHOTO: The Pawnee Fire, which broke out on Saturday, in Northern California. Courtesy CAL FIRE/via REUTERS

By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) – Four wildfires burned in Northern California on Tuesday, threatening hundreds of homes, while another blaze in an area of New Mexico hard hit by drought will force most of a sprawling national park to close, fire officials said.

The most damaging blaze, the Pawnee Fire, burned in Lake County near the Mendocino National Forest, 70 miles (110 km) northwest of Sacramento. It had destroyed 22 buildings and charred 11,500 acres (4,654 hectares) by Tuesday afternoon, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

The fire has forced about 1,500 people to evacuate, said Lieutenant Corey Paulich of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Lake County on Monday, freeing up resources. By Tuesday more than 1,400 firefighters battled the blaze, Cal Fire said.

The blaze was 5 percent contained, unchanged from Monday.

Lake County has now had at least one damaging wildfire each of the last four years, Paulich said.

“I don’t recall any fires as big in my first 19 years that we’ve had in the past four years,” said Paulich, a 23-year sheriff’s department veteran.

The fire’s growth on Tuesday was away from populated areas, Paulich said, adding that if that trend continues, residents may soon be allowed to return to their homes.

In New Mexico, most of the Carson National Forest will close on Wednesday. This will be the first time the 1.4 million acre (566,600 hectares) forest, larger than the state of Delaware, will close because of drought since 2011.

The closure is “strictly precautionary” and called due to the area being in the highest level of drought. The New Mexico fire is not expected to threaten any structures, the Carson National Forest said.

The Pawnee is one of four major wildfires burning in California as temperatures rise across the state. None are reported to have caused injuries.

Of the four, two were more than 50 percent contained by Tuesday afternoon, Cal Fire said.

The Lane Fire in Tehama County, 140 miles north of Sacramento and east of the Pawnee Fire, had blackened 3,800 acres and threatened 200 buildings, fire officials said. It was 45 percent contained.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Cotton makes a comeback in U.S. Plains as farmers sour on wheat

A cotton plant that was left unharvested is seen in a field near Wakita, Oklahoma, U.S., May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Michael Hirtzer

ANTHONY, Kan. (Reuters) – Farmers in Kansas and Oklahoma are planting more land with cotton than they have for decades as they ditch wheat, attracted by relatively high cotton prices and the crop’s ability to withstand drought.

A 20-percent increase from last year marks a sharp turnaround for the crop that once dominated the Mississippi Delta into Texas. Just three years ago, low prices led to U.S. farmers planting the fewest acres with cotton in over 30 years.

The switch to cotton in the southern plains of the United States could be long term as farmers move away from a global wheat market that is increasingly dominated by fast-growing supply from top exporter Russia. U.S. farmers have struggled to make a profit on wheat due to a global glut.

Cotton is a safer bet than wheat because it can be grown with less water, at a time when drought has hit some areas of the U.S. farm belt.

“I have switched out of grain pretty much completely,” said southern Kansas farmer Darrin Eck. “It’s rough to raise beans or corn. But, if we get a little bit of rain, the cotton works.”

Eck said he will plant 3,000 of his 4,000 acres with cotton, up from 1,700 last year. He also spent around $500,000 to purchase a used John Deere cotton harvester.

Even with expectations for more planted acres, cotton futures are hovering above 80 cents per pound, near the highest levels in about four years. Wheat futures have recovered from 2016’s decade-low of $3.60, fetching about $5.43 per bushel on Friday.

The other that crop farmers typically turn to during periods of drought or low rainfall is the animal feed sorghum. Both cotton and sorghum need less water than soybeans, corn or wheat.

But China in April targeted sorghum for punitive import tariffs in a tit-for-tat trade dispute with the United States, a move that sent prices plunging and made cotton the clear winner for many farmers this year. China has since removed the sorghum tariffs, but by then, most farmers had made their planting choice.

Growing more cotton is still a gamble. China had threatened to impose tariffs on U.S. cotton imports, before tensions eased last week between the world’s two largest economies.

In Kansas, farmers planned to sow 130,000 acres of cotton, the most ever, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oklahoma cotton plantings were forecast at 680,000 acres, the largest since 1980.

Across the country, farmers will likely plant 13.469 million cotton acres, the most since 14.735 million in 2011, after total acres of wheat planted last winter fell to 32.7 million, smallest in about a century.

SEEDS AND GINS

Seed firms are already seeing the benefits. U.S. sales of Monsanto cotton seeds and traits in the first half of fiscal-year 2018 were $243 million, up from $224 million during the same period in 2017, according to a company spokeswoman.

With both Monsanto and rival DowDuPont offering cotton seed with traits that help boost yields, the crop will likely be an option for many farmers for years, said Kansas farmer Eck.

“Cotton will be here to stay until the grains get better,” he said.

Some peanut farmers in states such as Georgia are also turning to cotton. USDA projected peanut plantings will drop 18 percent. Peanut production reached a record last year, but high cotton prices are luring farmers who need to rotate crops.

“Because cotton prices are attractive… it gives peanut farmers a chance to get their rotation back in order,” said Bob Parker, president and chief executive of the National Peanut Board, an industry group.

Demand for cotton harvesters, which strip cotton from the plants and make bales, is “off the charts,” said Greg Peterson, founder of the Machinery Pete website which hosts auctions for farm equipment.

The Southern Kansas Cotton Growers in Anthony, Kansas, plans to double its capacity to separate cotton fibers from seed this year.

The machine that does that, the gin, has already run at record capacity after a big harvest last year, said Gary Feist, president of the Kansas Cotton Association that operates the gin.

HEAVY EQUIPMENT

At Hurst Farm Supply in Lorenzo, Texas, there are roughly five farmers interested in each Deere  CS690 cotton harvester they have to sell, said Randy Sparks, a sales manager. The store collected names from farmers interested in the equipment and pulls a name out of a hat when a harvester becomes available, to ensure they are fair to their local customers.

“These guys out of Oklahoma and Kansas, there’s no local machinery for them to purchase so they have to come where it’s at,” Sparks said.

The machinery demand is a bright spot for Deere, which has been battling tepid demand in North America due to four years of declining U.S. farm income.

Equipment sales suggest the turn to cotton may be longer-term, said CoBank analyst Ben Laine.

“When you see producers making that type of investment, it gives confidence… You are going to see more acres switching,” Laine said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago, Chris Prentice in New York and Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru; Editing by Simon Webb and Cynthia Osterman)

Kenyan rose-farm dam bursts, ‘sea of water’ kills 47

An aerial view of rescue efforts near destroyed houses by flooding water after a dam burst, in Solio town near Nakuru, Kenya May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By Thomas Mukoya

SOLAI, Kenya (Reuters) – A dam on a commercial flower farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley burst after weeks of torrential rain, unleashing a “sea of water” that careered down a hillside and smashed into two villages, killing at least 47 people.

The walls of the reservoir, on top of a hill in Nakuru county, 190 km (120 miles) northwest of Nairobi, gave way late on Wednesday as nearby residents were sitting down to evening meals.

Kenya is one of the largest suppliers of cut flowers to Europe, and roses from the 3,500-acre Solai farm are exported to the Netherlands and Germany, according to Optimal Connection, its Netherlands-based handling agent.

The floodwaters carved out a dark brown chasm in the hillside and swept away everything in their path – powerlines, homes and buildings, including a primary school.

The bodies of two women were found several kilometers away as excavators and rescue workers armed with shovels picked through rubble and mud searching for survivors and victims.

Local police chief Japheth Kioko said the death toll could climb. “So far it is 47 dead. We are still on the ground,” he told Reuters.

After a severe drought last year, East Africa has been hit by two months of heavy rain, affecting nearly a million people in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Bridges have been swept away and roads turned into rivers of mud.

In Solai, Veronica Wanjiku Ngigi, 67, said she was at home brewing tea with her son at around 8 pm (1700 GMT) when his wife rushed in to say the dam had burst and they needed to get to higher ground immediately.

“It was a sea of water. My neighbor was killed when the water smashed through the wall of his house. He was blind so he could not run. They found his body in the morning,” she said. “My other neighbors also died. All our houses have been ruined.”

BOULDERS, ROOTS

Nakuru lies in the heart of Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley, home to thousands of commercial farms that grow everything from French beans to macadamia nuts to cut flowers, nearly all of which are exported to Europe.

The region is dotted with irrigation reservoirs built in the last two decades to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding agricultural sector, the biggest foreign exchange earner for East Africa’s largest economy and a major source of jobs.

Vinoj Kumar, general manager of the Solai farm, blamed the disaster on massive rainfall in a forest above the dam.

“In the past two days the intensity of the rain was high and the water started coming down carrying boulders and roots which damaged the wall,” he told Reuters. “The dam wall cracked and the water escaped.”

Nakuru governor Lee Kinyanjui said 450 homes had been hit by the floodwaters and safety engineers had been sent to inspect three other dams to check for cracks or breaches.

Wanjiku, the survivor, said at least one looked like it was ready to burst. “There is another dam which is also overflowing which is looking risky,” she said. “We are scared.”

One primary school had been closed as a precaution, education officials said. Arriving at the scene, Interior Minister Fred Matiangi pledged central government assistance to those affected.

To date, heavy rains have caused havoc in Kenya, killing 158 people and displacing 299,859, according to the government and Kenya Red Cross. Roads and bridges have been destroyed, causing millions of dollars of damage.

The United Nations UNOCHA disaster agency said 580,000 people had been affected by torrential rain and flooding in neighboring Somalia, while the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia had also taken a hammering, with 160,000 people affected.

The flooding could yet get worse, with heavy rains forecast to continue in the Rift Valley and the Lake Victoria basin over the next few weeks.

(Reporting by Thomas Mukoya, George Obulutsa, Duncan Miriri, Humphrey Malalo and Maggie Fick; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

California risks severe ‘whiplash’ from drought to flood: scientists

FILE PHOTO: Waves crash against a sea wall in San Francisco Bay beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, December 16, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith//File Photo

By Alister Doyle

OSLO (Reuters) – California will suffer more volatile weather this century with a “whiplash” from drought to rain and mounting risks a repeat of the devastating “Great Flood” of 1862, scientists said on Monday.

Climate change, driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions, would drive more extreme shifts between hot and dry summers and wet winters in the most populous U.S. state, they wrote in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Global warming is making California and other regions with similar Mediterranean-style climates, from southern Europe to parts of Australia, drier and warmer in summer, said lead author Daniel Swain of the University of California, Los Angeles.

In California in winter “an opposing trend toward a strong Pacific jet stream is projected to locally enhance precipitation during the core months of the ‘rainy season’,” he told Reuters.

“Natural precipitation variability in this region is already large, and projected future whiplash increases would amplify existing swings between dry and wet years,” the authors wrote.

They projected “a 25 percent to 100 percent increase in extreme dry-to-wet precipitation events” this century.

California had its worst drought in recorded history from 2010–2016, followed by severe rains and flooding that culminated with evacuation orders for almost 200,000 residents as a precaution near the Oroville Dam last year.

The study said that major urban centers, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, were “more likely than not” to suffer a freak series of storms by 2060 similar to ones in 1861-62 that led to the “Great Flood”.

The storms swamped the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, flooding an area 300 miles (500 km) long and 20 miles wide. Storms washed away bridges, inundated mines and wrecked farms.

FILE PHOTO: 65,000 cfs of water flow through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Max Whittaker/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: 65,000 cfs of water flow through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Max Whittaker/File Photo

A repeat “would probably lead to considerable loss of life and economic damages approaching a trillion dollars”, the study said.

As part of planning, Swain said the state should expand use of floodplains that can be deliberately flooded to soak up rains, such as the Yolo Bypass which protects the city of Sacramento.

The study assumes, however, that global greenhouse gas emissions will keep rising, at odds with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement under which almost 200 nations agreed to cut emissions to net zero between 2050 and 2100.

“Such a future can be partially, but not completely, avoided” if the world takes tougher action, Swain said. He noted that existing government pledges to limit warming fall well short of the Paris goals.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who doubts mainstream findings that greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of warming, plans to quit the deal, saying he wants to promote the U.S. fossil fuel industry.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Alison Williams)

A child dies, a child lives: why Somalia drought is not another famine

A Somali girl is seen at a internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Maggie Fick and Katharine Houreld

DOLLOW, Somalia (Reuters) – At the height of Somalia’s 2011 famine, Madow Mohamed had to leave her crippled five-year-old son Abdirahman by the side of the road to lead her eight other starving children toward help.

When she returned to search for him, she found only a grave. He was among the 260,000 Somalis who perished.

“You can never forget leaving your child to die,” she says, wiping away tears at the memory seven years later. “It is a hell that does not end.”

This time, the drought has been harsher. Three seasons of rains have failed, instead of two. But none of Mohamed’s other children have died – and the overall death toll, although unknown, is far lower. The United Nations has documented just over 1,000 deaths, mostly from drinking dirty water.

Why?

Earlier donor intervention, less interference by a weakened Islamist insurgency, a stronger Somali government and greater access for aid workers have been crucial.

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Another reason is that aid agencies are shifting from giving out food to cash – a less wasteful form of aid that donors such as Canada, Europe and Australia have embraced, although the United States still has restrictions on food aid.

The U.S. Congress will debate a move toward cash-based aid this year when lawmakers vote on a new Farm Bill. Christopher Barrett, an expert on food aid at Cornell University, is one of many scholars, politicians and aid agencies demanding reform.

“A conservative estimate is that we sacrifice roughly 40,000 children’s lives annually because of antiquated food aid policies,” he told Congress in November.

 

FROM FOOD TO CASH

In 2011, a few donors gave out cash in Somalia, but the World Food Programme only gave out food. It was often hijacked by warlords or pirates, or rotted under tarpaulins as trucks sat at roadblocks.

Starving families had to trek for days through the desert to reach distribution points. Their route became so littered with children’s corpses it was called “the Road of Death”.

Now, more than 70 percent of WFP aid in Somalia is cash, much of it distributed via mobile phones. More than 50 other charities are also giving out cash: each month Mohamed receives $65 from the Italian aid group Coopi to spend as she wants: milk, medicine, food or school fees.

Cash has many advantages over food aid if markets are functioning. It’s invisible, so less likely to be stolen. It’s mobile so families can move or stay put.

WFP said it gave out $134 million directly to Somali families to spend at local shops last year.

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

“We … basically gave confidence to the market to stay active,” said Laurent Bukera, head of WFP Somalia.

And money is more efficient than bags of food: in Somalia, cash aid means 80 cents in every $1 goes directly to the family, rather than 60 cents from food aid, said Calum McLean, the cash expert at the European Union’s humanitarian aid department.

Cash might have saved little Abdirahman.

“I could have stayed in my village if I had had cash. There was some food in the markets. It was expensive, but if you had money, there was food to buy,” Mohamed said sadly.

GLOBAL SHIFT

Aid groups have been experimenting with cash for two decades but McLean says the idea took off five years ago as the Syrian civil war propelled millions of refugees into countries with solid banking systems.

Donors have adapted. Six years ago, five percent of the EU’s humanitarian aid budget was cash distributions. Today, it is more than a third.

Most of the initial cost lies in setting up the database and the distribution system. After that, adding more recipients is cheap, McLean said. Amounts can be easily adjusted depending on the level of need or funding.

“Cash distributions also becomes cheaper the larger scale you do it,” he said.

Most U.S. international food assistance is delivered by USAID’s Food for Peace Office, which had a budget of $3.6 billion in 2017.

Just under half those funds came through U.S. Farm Bill Title II appropriations, which stipulate that most food must be bought from American farmers. The U.S. Cargo Preference Act requires that half of this be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.

Despite these restrictions, Food for Peace increased cash and voucher programs from 3 percent of the budget in 2011 to 20 percent last year.

But sourcing food aid in the United States is expensive and wasteful, said Barrett, who oversaw a study that found buying grain close to an emergency was half the price and 14 weeks faster. Arguments that food aid supported U.S. farmers or mariners were largely false, he said.

HOW IT WORKS

Aid groups use different systems to distribute cash, but most assess families, then register them in a biometric database, usually via fingerprints. Cash is distributed using bank cards or mobile phones or as vouchers.

Some charities place no restrictions on the cash; others, like WFP, stipulate it can only be spent at certain shops with registered shopkeepers.

In Dollow, the dusty town on the Ethiopian border where Mohamed lives with her surviving children, families say the cash has transformed their lives.

Gacalo Aden Hashi, a young mother whose name means “sweetheart”, remembers trudging past two dead children in 2011 on her way to get help. A third was alive but dying, she said, and her weakened family had to press on.

When she arrived at the camp, men were stealing food aid to give to their families, she said.

“Men were punching each other in line every time at food distributions,” she said. “Sometimes you would be sitting and suddenly your food would be taken by some strong young man.”

Now, she says, no one can steal her money – Coopi uses a system that requires a PIN to withdraw money. Most of her cash goes on food but with a group of other women she saved enough to open a small stall.

“The cash may end, but this business will not,” she said.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

Cash won’t work everywhere. In South Sudan, where famine briefly hit two counties last year, the civil war shut markets, forcing aid agencies to bring in food by plane and truck.

Sending cash to areas hit by earthquakes would drive up prices. But in a drought, where livelihoods have collapsed but infrastructure is intact, cash transfers are ideal, experts say.

Some problems remain. There’s often little co-ordination among donors – for instance, there are seven separate databases in Somalia, said McLean, and monthly stipends can vary widely.

In Uganda, authorities are investigating reports of fraud after the government used its own biometric registration system for refugees.

And if there’s no clean water or health service available, then refugees can’t spend money buying water or medicine.

But most scholars agree that switching to more cash aid would save more lives, a 2016 briefing paper by the Congressional Research Service concluded.

(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Giles Elgood)