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Saturday, August 11

Fires getting worse in California, nationwide because of human impact on natural fire cycle

From The Mercury News:

"Breaking News: Fire in Fairfield chars 1,00 acres, spurs evacuations."

"California fire map: New wildfires close roads, campgrounds in Sierra"

Holy Fire explodes to 19,107 acres in Lake Elsinore area; 10 percent containedKABC News (Los Angeles), updated 1 hr 12 minutes ago
LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. (KABC) --The Holy Fire in the Cleveland National Forest exploded to more than 19,100 acres and reached 10 percent containment as it continued to move near homes in the Lake Elsinore area.
Flames filled the sky with smoke as approximately 1,200 firefighters worked for a fifth day to keep the raging forest fire from reaching foothill neighborhoods, where more than 20,000 people have been evacuated.
[...]
Mendocino Complex Fire 60 percent contained as crews focus on national forestSacramento Bee, Updated August 10 2018 - 8:03 am PDT

Why the Wildfires of 2018 Have Been So Ferocious; The Atlantic, August 10, 2018
... "Modern data, collected through incident reports and satellite observation, show that wildfires now burn twice the area they did in the 1990s and ’80s ..."
Three of California’s Biggest Fires Ever Are Burning Right Now
By TIM WALLACE, ASH NGU, DENISE LU and MATTHEW BLOCH 
AUG. 10, 2018
The New York Times

[See website for charts, graphs, map]

California is in the middle of yet another record-breaking fire season with 820,000 acres across the state already burned — more than twice the area that burned by this point last year.
In the northern part of the state, the Mendocino Complex Fire has grown to more than 300,000 acres, becoming the largest fire ever recorded in California. In fact, three of the largest California fires since 2000 are burning right now.
In addition to the Mendocino Fire, firefighters are battling two more massive blazes in other rural parts of the state. The Carr Fire, near Mount Shasta, has burned more than a thousand homes and caused eight deaths, according to CalFire. And the Ferguson Fire, near Yosemite National Park, is the largest fire in Sierra National Forest history.
“The trends are pretty astounding in terms of the number of acres burned, the length of the wildfire season, the numbers of structures lost,” said Kelly Pohl, a research analyst with Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group that helps communities develop wildfire plans. “If you look at the trends over several decades, they’ve all gone up.”
In California, 15 of the 20 largest fires in state history have burned since 2000. The state is “a bit like a canary in a coal mine,” Ms. Pohl said. “We are also going to see the same trend across other states in the country in the future.”
The rising intensity of wildfires seen over the past few decades is the result of several overlapping trends, said Stephen Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University who studies the history of United States wildfire management. Climate change has lengthened the fire season, housing sprawl is creeping into fire-prone wildland, and fire agencies are struggling to coordinate holistic fire and land management, Dr. Pyne said.
Those trends all converge in California. The state is especially vulnerable — with its high population density, recent prolonged drought, and abundant fire-prone forests and shrubland.
Fires in California account for about 10 percent of all acres burned in the United States since 2000, according to figures from the National Interagency Fire Center. Only Alaska, which is four times larger than California, has seen more acres burn since 2000.
This fire season is poised to be one of California’s worst ever, and it comes on the heels of 2017, which itself had several record-breaking fires. California’s worst year for fire was 2008, when 1.6 million acres burned, in large part because of a series of severe, dry thunderstorms over two days in June
Fires are getting worse in California and nationwide because of the human impact on the natural fire cycle, experts say. A study last year from the University of Colorado Boulder found that people were indirectly or directly responsible for 84 percent of wildfires and 44 percent of land unintentionally burned from 1992 to 2012. These fires are often caused by sparked power lines, debris burning, campfires, and arson. The Carr Fire, for example, was caused by a flat tire.
The problem, though, is not only that people start most fires. It’s also that longstanding strategies — to not set planned fires to clear built-up vegetation — have increased the risk of serious uncontrolled fires.
“We have too much bad fire, and it’s burning houses, killing people, doing all kinds of nasty stuff,” Dr. Pyne said, “but we could probably have 10 times, 20 times more good fire before we got back to what it should be.”
The cost of suppressing fires has reached all-time highs, and the burden of that expense combined with the increased threat of wildfire is motivating changes in fire policy at multiple levels of government.
In recent years, authorities have moved toward working with the natural fire cycle rather than fighting it at any cost. In 2010, California became one of the few states in the country to adopt a mandatory statewide building code to help reduce fire risk in wildfire-prone areas.
In neighboring Arizona, cities are taking the lead. Flagstaff, which sits in the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest, was an early adopter of policies addressing the city’s high wildfire risk head on through fire education, controlled fires and tree thinning.
Paul Summerfelt, the city’s wildfire management officer, has seen how the perception of fire among Flagstaff residents has shifted from “scary” to “necessary.” “People had to work through the idea that cutting trees was O.K., that we could have controlled burns, that the right kind of fire at the right times and in the right place was necessary,” he said.
Today, in the forest surrounding Flagstaff, a different kind of fire is actively burning. The city works with the United States Forest Service to set low-intensity, controlled fires that follow historical fire behavior. These fires benefit the forest ecosystem, Mr. Summerfelt said, while simultaneously reducing the risk of catastrophic fires like those seen in California.


“These treatment efforts combined with requirements for homes and businesses make a huge difference, and they work,” he added. “Solutions do exist. They are not instantaneous, they take time, but they work. It takes a combined commitment from every party.”
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Sources: United States Geological Survey, CalFire, National Interagency Fire Center, InciWeb
[END REPORT]
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