USA — California’s fire season used to start in August and end by Christmas. Now it lasts year-round, and the number of blazes across the state may double this year.
Drought, heat, electrical storms and 60-year-old forest- management policies have all contributed to a threat of fire that exists every moment for residents of the most populous U.S. state. Firefighters are currently battling three wind-whipped blazes that have burned hundreds of homes near Los Angeles.
“We are in the mega-fire era,” said Ken Frederick, a spokesman for the U.S.Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Idaho, and a former firefighter with 13 years on the lines. “California has definitely been the epicenter of wildfire activity this year.”
More than 1.42 million acres have burned in California in 2008, up from 1.16 million last year, according to state and federal statistics. The 9,603 fires this year compare with 5,961 in 2007 and have cost at least $464.5 million to fight, according toCalifornia Department of Forestry and Fire Protection figures.
GovernorArnold Schwarzenegger said the threat of fire now exists all the time because of California’s two-year-drought and “climate change.” Across the state, rainfall is below normal while temperatures are higher than average.
“They are technically in a severe drought,” said Michael Pigott, a meteorologist at private forecasting firmAccuWeather.com in State College, Pennsylvania.
Surge Since 2000
Since 2000, the U.S. has experienced six of the top 10 busiest fire seasons since records started being kept in 1960. The amount of acres burned nationwide has increased 50 percent from the 1970s to the present, according toNational Interagency Fire Center statistics.
In Ontario, 46 miles (75 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, only a trace amount of rain has fallen while temperatures were 7 degrees higher than average in October and are running 6 degrees higher this month, Pigott said by telephone.
Los Angeles has received 2.5 to 3 inches (6.4 to 7.6 centimeters) less rain than usual and has been about 3 degrees warmer since the beginning of October, Pigott said.
“Global warming is contributing to warmer and drier conditions that are conducive to fire in places like Southern California,” said Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist with theNational Wildlife Federation, an environmental group in Reston, Virginia.
Storms are also becoming more severe, Staudt said. For every 1.8-degree increase in temperature, there is a 6 percent increase in lightning strikes. Lightning touched off an unprecedented 1,700 fires in a single day in June that went on to consume more than 1 million acres, a state record for destruction.
Man vs. Nature
On top of the environmental factors are human ones, saidChad Oliver, a forestry professor at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in New Haven, Connecticut.
Aggressive firefighting that began after World War II and a movement to limit cutting in forests have built up the fuel needed for larger, hotter fires, Oliver said.
At the same time,more people are moving into areas that are prone to burning, forcing fire departments to stamp out forest blazes to save homes in the state of 36 million, Oliver said.
“It is a peculiar case of where you have an area that naturally burns a lot and then people moved into it,” Oliver said by telephone. “You have people living in the area demanding fires be put out, but that is like trying to make water flow uphill.”
Across the U.S., fires have been growing for many of the same reasons, said Frederick of the Bureau of Land Management.
“We have longer fire seasons and we tend to be starting earlier in the year,” Frederick said. “There is a school of thought that says we’re never out of fire season anymore. Something has changed.”