Experts say this year’s fire season could be just as devastating as 2017

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LA’s drought-like conditions and bone-dry vegetation indicate this year’s fire season could be just as devastating as 2017.

Cal Fire has already responded to more than 1,200 fires since January, and its firefighters are preparing for the worst.

Some experts are calling this type of dry season California’s “new normal.” But others, vets like Cal Fire’s Scott McLean, have already adjusted to seeing the grasses covering the rolling hills brown earlier and earlier each year.

“It’s not new anymore. We’re there,” McLean tells Curbed. “We don’t even call it a fire season anymore.”

As predicted, 2017 was one of the most destructive dry seasons in California’s history. Statewide, wildfires across resulted in more than $10 billion in damage and 44 dead, and countless stories of survival.

By this time last year, Cal Fire had responded to 156 fewer fires. But, the good news is that more fires this year doesn’t necessarily mean more burned ground. In comparison to the 23,000 acres burned by the end of May 2017, only 8,000 have burned this year to date. The high number of acres was due to a somewhat surprising cause: rain.

High levels of precipitation last winter resulted in mass growth of fuel—what experts call grasses, shrubs, trees, basically anything flammable—across the state. That fuel caught fire, pushing the number of acreage burned into the multiple thousands.

But predicting the severity of fire seasons is tricky, says climate scientist Daniel Swain.

“The things that lead to an increased risk, don’t guarantee that we end up seeing that in a given season,” Swain told Curbed. “The year-to-year variations in the fire seasons are only partially predictable.”

The question of what type and severity of fires we see during the dry season “depends on which part of the state we’re talking about, and which type of vegetation.”

In the mountains, low precipitation levels mean high wildfire risk. But in the case of scrubland and chaparral, in lower elevations, it’s the wet winters that are dangerous because increased rainfall results in more brush growth—which is why we see those six-digit figures for acreage burned by this time last year.

Overall, LA had a drier winter this year than last. That means less fuel grew to burn.


A Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter makes a water drop on the Skirball Fire, which swept through Bel Air last year.
AP

But drought-like conditions can be just as dangerous in other parts of the state.

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.”

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