Saturday, September 15

California Wildfires: Meet Climate Whiplash.

I'd lost track of the number of days the massive Delta fire had been raging so I went to Wikipedia, which reported that the fire ignited on September 5. Then I went to a report at The Los Angeles Times, Firefighters make progress on massive Delta fire in Northern California, published yesterday morning Pacific Time, for news on how fighting the Delta fire has been going.

The fire was only 28 percent contained as of the report's publication although firefighters had caught a break from cooler and more humid weather, which allowed them to gain some ground against the fire. It could be a short break, and fire officials estimate the fire won't be fully contained until late this month.  

The allover situation with California wildfires has become steadily more troubling. California has always had two fire seasons but recently the wildfires have been striking virtually year round. Californians are up against a shift in demographics that leaves virtually all towns in the heavily populated state vulnerable to a sudden catastrophic wildfire brought on by a boom and bust weather pattern. 

So while 'climate whiplash,' as a climatologist quoted in the following report terms it, is not new or unique to California, it's hitting the state very hard. And it may be the new normal there. 

From Marissa Clifford's June 5 report for LA Curbed, In California, it’s always fire season now:

As the climate changes, Southern California will receive less rainfall in autumn and spring with a more pronounced wet season in winter. That means a longer dry season, one that will potentially overlap with fall’s notorious Santa Ana winds, a combination that fueled last year’s Thomas Fire—which burned for six months, destroying over 1,300 structures and claiming the lives of 22 people in the ensuing mudslides.

Those conditions are also believed to have fanned the Creek Fire in the foothills of Angeles National Forest.

But a longer dry season and rising temperatures aren’t the only factors that could contribute to 2018’s potentially devastating fire season. The sudden transitions back and forth from really wet years to really dry years, what Swain calls “climate whiplash”—which characterizes the swing from wet 2017 to dry 2018—and development all contribute to increased wildfire risk across the state.

Last year’s Skirball fire in Bel Air was sparked by a stove in a homeless encampment along the LA River. As Californians expand into high-risk areas, often areas that are desirable because of their ocean views and picturesque vegetation, developers and regulators are being forced to consider what building in fire zones means. Especially since the mix of wildland-urban areas make fires harder to fight.

”It’s not just put a line on the ground and the fire is contained,” Jonathan Cox, Cal Fire’s battalion chief, told the Washington Post. “You have essentially a jigsaw puzzle of fire and homes and infrastructure, all mixed together, and then you add in topographical features like slope and hills and trees.”

Because of the many factors contributing to a fire’s ignition and burn-time, McLean confirms that predicting with certainty how fires will affect Southern California is futile.

“There’s no way to determine that,” he said of our ability to forecast what 2018’s fire season will look like. “The weather is starting out the same [as 2017]. Things are matching. I can tell you at the end of the year.”

Fire season by name or not, Sacramento has been quick to respond after last year’s disasters.

The state has approved more than $1 billion to prevent and prepare for wildfires this season, $100 million of which will go to buying a new fleet of helicopters. Controlled burns are scheduled across the state, and Cal Fire has pushed staffing up by two weeks in anticipation.

Soon, Wireless Emergency Alerts, known as WEAs, will be enhanced with geo-targeting and informational hotlinks in the hopes that they’ll be more effective.

It’s important that Cal Fire and other agencies are as prepared as possible to fight and prevent wildfires, but McLean stresses that it’s the public’s responsibility to educate themselves as much as it is Cal Fire’s to provide support.

“It’s a 360 degree thing,” he said. “We’re still in the same conditions as last year, so we just need to all work together.”
I wish Californian's luck in combating the wildfire threat, but the bottom line is that California has become a tinder box, where even a spark from a car exhaust pipe can set off a conflagration. At the time of a San Francisco Chronicle editorial's publication on July 30, wildfires were burning across the entire state:
What’s especially alarming about this year’s fire season is how difficult it’s been for fire crews to contain the blazes. The Carr Fire, for example, grew from relatively manageable flames into a war zone overnight.
To return to the LA Times report on the Delta fire:

This part of Northern California has been hard hit by wildfire recently. The Hirz fire to the east, which joined with the Delta fire, grew to 46,150 acres before it was completely contained. In July, the Carr fire, which started in the same cluster as the Delta and Hirz fires, grew to 229,651 acres. Three firefighters died and more than 1,000 homes were destroyed in that blaze.

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