Wildfires are not new to California where we have millions of acres of natural fuel in our forests and national parks. At this writing, there are 11 uncontrolled fires raging across the state, with 10 more that seem to be controlled, according to the 2018 California Statewide Fire Map.
During the first six months of 2018, wild fires have consumed more acres in California than they did during the same period in 2017. Last year’s fires set the record for the total number of deaths, as well as for the number of buildings that were destroyed. This year, that record might very well be broken.
California’s ‘water year’ begins on September 26. A water year (also called the hydrological year) is a term used in hydrology to describe the 12-month time period for which precipitation totals are measured. Writing for Digital Journal, Karen Graham points out, “Right now, over 85 percent of California’s natural landscape is abnormally dry, up from 22 percent at the start of the water year in September, 2017. Drought conditions now cover 44 percent of the state, and this is not good for Californians still recovering from the worst fire season ever recorded.”
Locally, the Ferguson Fire in Mariposa tripled in size over last weekend, from about 4,000 acres on Friday to more than 13,000 acres (more than 20 square miles) on Wednesday morning. At that time, the fire was only five percent contained, had injured two and claimed the life of firefighter Braden Varney, and was facing continuing triple-digit heat through this weekend and probably all of next week.
Authorities declared mandatory evacuations for the Jerseydale area, as well as Clearing House, Mariposa Pines, Cedar Lodge, and Trading Post, according to Cal Fire spokesperson Natasha Fouts-Noble, who was interviewed by the Fresno Bee. Some additional areas, including Ponderosa Basin and Lushmeadows, had been put on notice. And, there is no rain expected to help with the fire-fighting effort.
Two fire seasons
In 2015, a study published by Environmental Research Letters found that wildfires in California would become more frequent and more destructive because of climate change. It noted that wild fires have increased statewide both in number and severity. And, the authors identified two distinct fire seasons: First, there is the early summer season when sun-warmed vegetation is susceptible to fire; second is the Santa Ana season when hot, dry winds blow from the east toward the Pacific. The authors from the University of California at Irvine, UC Davis, UCLA, U.S. Forest Service and Jet Propulsion Laboratories said that each season has its specific characteristic fire patterns, and climate change seems to be making each season worse. The researchers studied data on fires that occurred over a 50-year period, from 1959 to 2009.
According to the report, summer fires, between June and September, burn more slowly than Santa Ana fires, and often start in remote and wild areas where summer temperatures leave dried out debris in the forests. These fires tended to occur only once in any specific area during the 50 years, suggesting that a “let-burn” policy might be the correct approach when there is no threat to public safety. This type of fire occurs in nature and serves to refresh the forest, making way for new growth.
Santa Ana fires are probably better known to the public because they tend to strike more developed areas along the coast. Consequently, they inflict a great deal more economic damage. These fires burn quickly, causing half of their total destruction in the first 24 hours after they’re sparked. The study found that “both summer and Santa Ana fires burned about the same land area over the period studied, but Santa Ana fires did 10 times as much economic damage as summer fires.”
Lead author of the study, Yufand Jin of the Department of Land, Air & Water Resources at UC Davis, said, “This research is coming at the right time, considering that California and western areas of the United States are expected to face increased fire risk in the near term as the current multiyear drought is expected to continue and grow in intensity.”
James Randerson, a professor at UC Irvine and one of the senior authors of the report, speculated, “The large economic and human impacts of Santa Ana fires raises the question of whether more resources during fall could be marshaled for suppressing these fires.”
Writing for the New York Times, Thomas Fuller and Matt Stevens suggest that our current spate of wild fires is the “new normal” for California. They cite Chris Anthony, division chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who says that “fire behavior appears to be changing on a more micro level.
One example: In mountainous terrain, fires typically run much faster uphill as the fire heats the fuels above, making them more readily combustible.” But, firefighters report that this year’s fires seem to be running just as fast downhill.
Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, notes that fires tend to slow considerably at night. But, observers of this year’s fires report that they continue to advance through the night at the same pace.
Craig Clements, a meteorologist at San Jose State University, says that experts are still trying to quantify and confirm these changes in fire behavior, and one of his students is investigating “nocturnal drying events” which occur “when very dry air coming off the Pacific leaves higher altitudes desiccated.” He told the reporters, “It’s most cool and foggy down in the Bay. You have a sea breeze coming in. But above the sea breeze some of the driest air in North America is coming in. Up in the hills, it’s super dry.”
Last year, more than 505,000 acres of California burned, and this year could be worse. Writing for Forbes magazine, Michael Tachovsky, an expert in real estate damage economics, claims, “After detrimental events…, we have found that property owners will either ‘dive, survive, or thrive….’” Faced with the certainty that fires will devastate hundreds of thousands of acres again this year, we need to develop new strategies that will encourage people to “thrive” in the wake of the new normal.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.