As if Northern California’s summer lightning fire siege isn’t devastating enough, experts say it is a troubling sign of what lies ahead during the state’s more traditional fall wildfire season.
Though California regularly sees summer wildfires, the state’s most deadly and destructive blazes have tended to hit in fall, when weather patterns shift and warm, dry winds from the high desert blow offshore across tinder-dry grasses, shrubs and trees that haven’t seen significant rain since the spring.
The sheer number and rapid growth of this week’s wildfires signal that brush already is primed for intense burning after a light rainfall season, said Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University.
“Heading into the fall with those starting conditions clearly creates an additional risk,” Diffenbaugh said. “The context of very dry fuels from the preexisting drought and the very hot summer conditions, that is a recipe for elevated wildfire risk when those strong wind events occur.”
Beyond that, there’s the risk that many of these late August wildfires won’t be completely extinguished when the autumn winds kick up, creating the possibility that they could spawn new fires, Diffenbaugh said.
At the same time, the state’s firefighting resources are already maxed out by a combination of the sheer number of fires burning now and a shortage of inmate firefighters due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Cal Fire currently has fewer than half as many inmate fire crews as it’s budgeted for due in part to the unavailability of low-risk prisoners. Many of those prisoners have been released to avoid crowding that can fuel the spread of coronavirus in prisons, which already have seen bad outbreaks at San Quentin and Chino.
Heather Williams, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Cal Fire, which is budgeted for 192 inmate fire crews, currently has just 90. Cal Fire was able to hire an additional 800 firefighters — about 58 more crews, which average 15 firefighters — but is still short, she said.
“There’s definitely a drastic decrease. A lot of it is due to COVID impacts,” Williams said.
Williams said the agency is concerned about the fall wildfire season and urging extra vigilance from the public about things such as parking near dry grass or car parts dragging and sparking on the road.
“Definitely our fall months are much more prone to devastating fires,” William said. “But this weather event definitely did show us extreme weather. We saw 110-, 108-degree temperatures and lightning storms that drove these fires. It’s August and we’re seeing these conditions, and even though temperatures will cool off in the fall, we need the public’s help.”
California has seen devastating summer wildfires before, among them the Carr Fire in July 2018 that burned 229,651 acres in Shasta and Trinity counties, destroyed 1,614 homes and other buildings and killed eight.
But the worst have come in autumn, such as November 2018’s 153,336-acre Camp Fire, California’s deadliest, which killed 85 people as it destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise. Others include the October 2017 Wine Country wildfires and the October 1991 Oakland Hills fire.
With a third of the year left, California is already close to last year’s total number of fires and acres burned. So far this year, California has seen 5,762 fires that have burned 204,481 acres. In all of 2019, there were 7,860 fires and 259,823 acres burned.
Climate experts say rising average temperatures globally and across California are steadily boosting wildfire danger, leading to more frequent droughts and more intense heat waves and tropical storms, all raising vulnerability to wildfires.
“Global warming is making extreme heat waves more intense and likely, and climate change is making California fire risk worse,” said Daniel L. Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California-Los Angeles’ Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Diffenbaugh said that in California, hotter summers are extending into the fall, “and these trends are very likely to continue and intensify as global warming increases.”
And research he and his colleagues published Thursday raises yet another concern: Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California.
“The odds of extreme conditions in both Northern and Southern California, those odds are increasing,” Diffenbaugh said. “All that portends potential high levels of wildfire risk going forward in the coming weeks and months.”
Source: Orange County Register