California’s burning again as drought’s vicious cycle takes its toll

Published on July 1st, 2015

Will Greenberg
July 1, 2015
Washington Post

Everything in nature is connected, which is great when nature is kind. But when it’s cruel, it brings us California, circa 2015.

The worst California drought in recorded history has stressed out the trees. That makes them more vulnerable, for example, to bark beetles, which suck out their sap and kill them by the million. The dead trees produce fuel for wildfires, which in turn are harder to fight because the state’s reservoirs are depleted, which means fire-fighting helicopters have to fly further and further away to refill their tanks, which gives the fires more time to spread.

California has wildfires every year. But with the drought, the fires started earlier this year. It’s not unusual for the Eastern Sierra area of California to see snow during a typical February. What is highly unusual is having one of the largest wildfires of the year during that month, destroying 40 homes and kicking off a historically early wildfire season.

Cal Fire, one of the main organizations that handles wildfires in the state, responded to nearly 300 incidents last week alone.

And large wildfires are burning where they normally wouldn’t, such as the Lake Fire in San Bernardino County. Covering over 30,000 acres and burning for nearly two weeks, it’s the largest wildfire of the year but also the first for the area ever in recorded history, Cal Fire Staff Chief Glenn Barley told The Post.

In addition to the wildfires coming earlier, there are more of them.

Cal Fire has already responded to 1,000 more incidents this year than they see on average annually. The agency reached that same landmark last year as well — but in September.

By the end of June, officials had fought nearly 3,200 fires.

In total, Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service have responded to fires stretching over 65,755 acres so far this year.

And this is just the beginning for California’s 2015 wildfire season. Capt. Daniel Berlant, head of communications for Cal Fire, explained that typically peak wildfire season is late summer into the fall. This year’s early start has Berlant and the rest of Cal Fire incredibly concerned.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott compared conditions this year to those in the mid-late 1970s, when another serious drought corresponded with increased wildfire activity. However, he said the conditions this year are “way outpacing that drought.”

“Things are just critically dry,” he said.

The state is largely at the mercy of the weather but also of her people, who are responsible for most of the fires.

More than 95 percent of all wildfires are caused by human activity, said Cal Fire’s Capt. Mike Mohler, a pattern that is continuing this year. Mohler said most of the fires are in the “wild-land, urban interface (WUI)” where residential neighborhoods border woods and fields. Because of this, he said, residents need to be particularly cautious on their own to ensure the safety of their houses. The agency suspended the residential burning of landscape debris Monday.

Cal Fire is working to educate the public on how to prevent starting fires, Mohler said. The agency’s “One Less Spark” campaign lets them know of fire-starting sources they might not have thought of: chains dragging from trucks or trailers on the highway; using high powered lawn equipment that can strike hard objects and spark; not leaving a “defensible space” around a property by failing to clear brush.

Director Pimlott is also urging people not to use recreational drones, having heard of at least three incidents where a drone interfered with a support helicopter.

And, of course, fireworks on July 4 are going to pose serious potential threats.

Even people trying to help are potential threats. Berlant said he’s heard of people accidentally creating a spark off a rock with their lawn mowers while trying to cut back brush around their houses to reduce the fuel available for fires.

“A lot of these are everyday causes,” Berlant said.

On top of this, wildfires in Washington and Alaska have stretched fire-fighting resources thin as officials all along the West Coast try to work together, Pimlott said.

But now, at the beginning of July, Pimlott said it’s past the time of preparing houses and clearing brush. Now people need to be “focusing on an evacuation plan” he said. “They need to be prepared so when the fire does happen, they can leave.”

And because everything in nature is indeed connected, the burning has the potential to make the drought even worse than it already is by reducing the supply of drinkable water. It does this by burning off vegetation around water sources. Normally, vegetation protects the water by preventing rain from displacing soil that holds plant roots in place.

When that vegetation is gone, it often leads to soil eroding into the water, Barley said, producing unsanitary water in California’s already dwindling reservoirs.

It’s the drought and “a whole bunch of ripple effects,” said Barley.

“It’s not getting any better,” Mohler said. “It’s getting worse.”

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