Ominous warnings about California wildfire season

Ominous warnings about California wildfire season

21 August 2013

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USA — The wildfire raging near Yosemite National Park on Wednesday is just one of 11 major fires currently blazing in California, even before the bone-dry state enters the usual peak of the fire season in September and October.

“All season long we have been seeing more fires than normal due to the dry conditions,” says CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant, “and that trend could continue as we enter the time period when we experience the largest and most damaging wildfires.” CalFire is California’s state fire agency.

The fire near Yosemite, known as the “Rim” fire, was only 5% contained as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the National Park Service.

Near Yosemite, hundreds of people were evacuated from camps and towns as the fire consumed 16,000 acres.The fire spread across Highway 120, a major road in the area leading to the national park.

“Today, over 7,000 firefighters are battling a dozen major wildfires across California that in total have charred over 100,000 acres,” Berlant reports.

In all, as of Wednesday afternoon, more than 50 fires were burning in 10 states across the western USA, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, with California (11) and Idaho (11) leading the list. On Tuesday, the fire center raised the national wildfire preparedness level to the highest tier of “5” for the first time in five years.

Although the entire West is dry, concern is especially high in California, now facing its driest year since accurate records began in 1895, the National Climatic Data Center reported last week.

The statewide precipitation average from all of its reporting stations from January-July was just 4.58 inches, which is nearly 10 inches below the long-term average.

Also, 98% of the state is now in a drought, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor. “Impacts are beginning to be felt” in central and Southern California, “including dried-up rivers, stressed vegetation and possible water restrictions,” the Monitor reported last week.

“In just the last several days, we experienced about 30,000 lightning strikes that sparked about 150 new fires,” Berlant adds. “It’s not uncommon for us to have a summer storm that brings lightning and little rain. What sets this year apart from normal is the dry conditions that allow the lightning sparks to ignite into wildfires.

“These are much of the same conditions that we had in 2008, when we had over 2,000 lightning sparked fires in California that burned hundreds of thousands of acres.”

According to CalFire, more than 4,700 separate fires have already charred the state this year, which is more than 1,300 fires above average. These numbers are for fires fought by CalFire only, and do not include fires that occur on federal land.

Nationally, the total number of fires and acres burned is actually below average, according to the fire center in Boise. But this tells only part of the story: So far this year in the West, “many of the fires have been in highly populated, wilderness-urban interface areas such as Colorado Springs; Sun Valley, Idaho; and the west slope of the Sierra Nevada,” says Norman Christensen of Duke University, an expert in the environmental impacts of forest fires.

“That adds greatly to costs since so many more resources are required to protect built structures,” he says.

The rest of the fire season in California “certainly has potential for a big (high acreage) year, but there are lots of variables that can either mitigate or exacerbate the problem,” says meteorologist Jan Null of private forecasting firm Golden Gate Weather Services. “Are there a significant number of dry lightning events? Are there strong-wind events? How early do we see significant rains?”

The official forecast is worrisome: “The mountains of northwestern and Southern California will continue with above-normal significant fire potential, especially as the chance for offshore wind events increases,” the fire center noted in an online forecast earlier this month.

One of the most notorious offshore wind threats is from the Santa Ana winds, which tend to howl in the fall, bringing hot, dry conditions to Southern California.

“In the foothills of California and Southern California, mountains expect significant drought to remain in place and leave fuels drier than normal,” the forecast noted. “This will lead to fire season continuing in Southern California through at least October and possibly through November.”

“The potential for significant offshore winds remains a possibility this fall, which will help to keep significant fire potential above normal from the coastal ranges westward and from Santa Barbara County southward to the Mexican border,” the fire center forecast warned.

Despite firefighting efforts, wildfires nationally have burned more than 960 homes and 30 commercial buildings nationwide this year, according to the fire center. And 30 firefighters have died in the effort, including 19 hotshots at Yarnell, Ariz., in July. The annual average over the past 10 years is 17 dead.

Elsewhere in the West Wednesday:

• In Montana, a wildfire burning west of Missoula has surpassed 13 square miles and destroyed five homes.

• In Oregon, a fire in the Columbia Gorge has grown to 13 square miles, forcing evacuations and burning a third home.

• And in Idaho, progress is reported in the fight against the nearly 169-square-mile Beaver Creek fire.

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