With planning and luck firefighters quickly contained most fires ignited in the past week. But the state remains vulnerable if it doesnt adapt to more extreme weather

Throughout the last week of October, amid unprecedented, bone-dry winds, California seemed to erupt in slow motion no sooner had firefighters contained one fire than another ignited. But Californias 2019 wildfire season has so far not proven worse than previous devastating years.

Roughly 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres) have burned statewide in 2019, compared with 765,000 in 2018, and 525,000 in 2017. In the past week, California saw 183 fires ignited but most were quickly contained.

Between proactive planning and investments and no shortage of luck firefighters have been extraordinarily successful in mitigating and fighting blazes in extreme weather conditions.

This fire season is a testament to the lessons California has learned so far, as well as yet another reminder of how vulnerable the state remains if it does not adapt soon to more extreme, climate-changed weather.

Historic weather

Over the last few years, California and the American west at large has seen progressively worsening wildfire seasons, with more acreage burned, over longer periods of time, devastating more human life and property.

The climate crisis has sped up Californias natural cyclical weather patterns and made the age-old threat of fire into an acute and repetitive trauma.

Fall is traditionally fire season for California, as the Diablo winds in the north and Santa Ana winds in the south blow down the hillsides and across forests and brushland that has dried out from the summer heat, but not yet wetted by winter rains. Extreme winds make the vegetation especially flammable, and threaten to whip up flames and carry hot embers further and faster, creating new spot fires across the landscape.

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A wind-driven fire burns along Faught Road during the Kincade fire in Windsor, California, on 27 October 2019. Photograph: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images

This year, meteorologists said those winds were historically strong one likened the unusual high pressure system to an atmospheric hairdryer.

Wind gusts in northern California peaked at over 100mph on one hilltop last week. Relative humidity reached 1% in some southern California mountains.

Conditions were so volatile in southern California, the National Weather Service was forced to create an entirely new category of the red flag warning used in high fire-risky weather the extreme red flag warning. On warning maps, the region was highlighted not in red, but purple.

Unprecedented blackouts

The states three largest investor-owned utility companies all have a history of igniting wildfires in windy weather with their faulty equipment, some of which is roughly 100 years old. In response to those dire forecasts, utilities chose to shut down electricity distribution lines that serve millions of people.

Rolling blackouts were meant to be a last resort in cases of the most extreme fire weather risk but more of that extreme fire weather has left more Californians in the dark. Blackouts of this magnitude were, like the winds that prompted them, unprecedented.

Firefighters
Firefighters set a back fire along a hillside near PG&E power lines during firefighting operations to battle the Kincade fire. Photograph: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images

In some sense, this is what the public wanted, but they didnt really think about how long they might have to endure it or what it might mean, said Thomas Cova, a geography professor at University of Utah at Salt Lake City who researches environmental hazards and emergency management.

The strategy power companies hoped would mitigate the threat of disaster ended up being a disaster itself. And ultimately, the blackouts did not successfully serve their intended purpose. Pacific Gas and Electric, which serves 16m households across northern and central California, was implicated in igniting the Kincade fire, along with other fires across the Bay Area, after its grid was ostensibly shut off.

Getting ahead of fires

In a sense, firefighters had been working on the Kincade, and other fires across the state, starting months ago.

The prevention side of it is so important, saidScott McLean, an information officer for Cal Fire, the state land and fire management agency that coordinates wildfire operations. Cal Fire cant make the power lines stop sparking new blazes, but it has focused heavily on vegetation management programs, including prescribed burning and installing fuel breaks, as well as investing in local Fire Safe Councils and the Firewise Communities Program.

There is a stark difference because of a lot of things that have taken place this year, said McLean. Cal Fire also added hundreds of new seasonal firefighters, engines and other equipment to fight the fires that do ignite.

These fires that weve dealt with in the last three years, they burn so fast, you have to learn how to attack them, and thats something we do, said McLean. Its strategy and tactics. We adapt and deal with whats given to us.

Given the unprecedented weather conditions this October, fire officials acted out of an abundance of caution. During red flag warnings, firefighters pre-stage across the hills facing high winds and fire risk, and teams patrol neighborhoods, looking for any new hazards.

Facing down the Kincade fire in Sonoma county, authorities evacuated towns clear to the Pacific coast more than 200,000 people were forced from their homes.

Firefighters
Firefighters worked to contain the fast-moving Easy fire on 31 October 2019. Photograph: Jason Ryan/Zuma/Rex/Shutterstock

But this fire moved over the course of days, while the last fire moved in hours. As much as the successful planning made a difference, so did luck.

They had days. And they have the lessons learned from the last fire, said Cova. Sometimes it looks like theyre doing everything right, but its really that they just have a lot more time.

In many ways, Californians are becoming more accustomed to the impacts of a longer, stronger fire season due to global heating, but they are also becoming exhausted. As he faced a mandatory evacuation order from the home he only just finished rebuilding after it was destroyed in 2017, Ken Herland said, This time feels worse.It is not worse, but the mounting stress and trauma amid a combination of disasters, both man-made and man-worsened, are taking a toll.

But as the fires continue to burn, and some say California is becoming unlivable, millions are determined to stay, fight and adapt.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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