With warming, get used to blackouts to prevent wildfires SETH BORENSTEIN•Super scoopers make drops on the Saddleridge fire in Placerita Canyon near Newhall, Calif., Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. (David Crane/The Orange County Register via AP)WASHINGTON (AP) — Expect more preventative power blackouts in California as the climate gets hotter and drier and the wildfire season gets nastier and longer, scientists say.The Golden State already is fire-prone with lots of dry plants and woodlands — but add high winds that can knock down power lines or cause them to spark, then watch out, wildfire experts say.The darker outlook hits close to home for Stanford University climate scientist Chris Field, who like so many others had his electricity cut off Thursday by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.”At this point we don’t have a better option for reducing risk than shutting electricity off,” Field said. „It’s better than having a whole community burn down.”Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta in Canada, said „the new reality” is that there will be more fires with drier and hotter weather from man-made global warming. So he said power shutdowns like those by California utilities are more likely to happen to try to avoid catastrophic fires with losses of lives and property like those that plunged PG&E into bankruptcy.”Power shutdowns, that’s pretty dramatic. It’s very effective. It’s overkill,” Flannigan said. „It’s a trend.”Flannigan said there is some build-up of certain trees and plants as fuel, but that’s usually not a big problem. „It’s just fire weather is getting more severe,” he said. „Fuels are drier, which means more fuel to burn. The more fuel to burn means more intense” fires.The area burned in California wildfires has increased fivefold from 1972 to 2018 and that’s been „driven by drying of fuels promoted by human-induced warming,” according to a June study in the scientific journal Earth’s Future.Summer „warm season” days in California have increased in temperature by 2.5 degrees (1.4 degrees Celsius) in the past century, the study said.”Mostly we see a strong summertime effect,” study co-author Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado, said in an email. „But warmer temperatures in the fall also dry out fuels and make big, wind-driven wildfires more likely.””Power outages are just a Band-Aid on the problem of human ignitions,” Balch said. „People provide the ignitions for 84% of our nation’s wildfires. And it’s not just downed power lines that cause sparks. Campfires, burning debris, driving off the side of the road, electrical equipment, and fireworks are all ways that we start fires.”California’s fire season traditionally started in fall but the higher temperatures and long stretches of little precipitation have led to wildfires becoming more common throughout the year. It’s especially dangerous in fall, when high winds can knock down power lines and spark fires that feed on the vegetation that dried out during the hot summer months.The key, said Field of Stanford, is the time between the start of the high winds and the start of winter rainstorms. If it takes too long, the fire potential worsens.
These types of winds — called Santa Ana in Southern California but more properly called downsloping because they also occur in Northern California — historically have caused power lines to arc and start fires, said Robyn Heffernan, the fire weather science meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
The winds that come down mountains warm and dry out and the speed increases, Heffernan said.
They are common regular and natural weather phenomenon, but scientists will likely be looking to see if there are increasing or decreasing trends that can be connected to man-made climate change, Heffernan said.
A January 2019 study predicts that the downslope winds in Southern California should be less frequent, but just as strong, as climate change progresses.
Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @borenbears
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Two dead near Los Angeles as Saddleridge fire forces 100,000 people to evacuate
LOS ANGELES – A wildfire whipped by the treacherous Santa Ana winds jumped two freeways northwest of Los Angeles overnight Friday, consuming 4,700 acres, damaging at least 25 homes and forcing the evacuation of more than 100,000 people, authorities said.
„This is a very dynamic fire,” Los Angeles Fire chief Ralph Terrazas told reporters Friday, warning that the fire — dubbed the Saddleridge fire — was devouring 800 acres an hour. The blaze erupted late Thursday along the northern tier of the San Fernando Valley.
Terrazas said the fire, as of Friday morning, was „zero” contained. The most immediate task, he said, was to use helicopters and „super scooper,” water-carrying, fixed-wing aircraft to establish some fire lines and stop it from spreading.
Authorities on Friday reported two people have died: A man in his 50s went into cardiac arrest and died near the Saddleridge fire.
One person was killed in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, in the Sandalwood fire that earlier swept through a hilltop mobile home park, destroying 74 structures and damaging 16 others in Calimesa.
The chief said some 1,000 area firefighters were battling the Saddleridge fire. „Nobody is going home right away,” he said. „This event is going to take a few days.”
Los Angeles police chief Michel Moore said the evacuation orders covered 23,000 residences, or around 100,000 people.
He urged residences to evacuate the areas immediately when ordered. The chief said people „fighting the fire with garden hoses” only endanger themselves and first responders who are trying to clear the area.
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Authorities said the Saddleridge blaze started as a brush fire in Sylmar, the northernmost neighborhood of Los Angeles, and quickly spread, driven by the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that sweep down from the deserts and across coastal Southern California.
“This is an extremely dynamic, high wind driven fire,” the LAFD said in an advisory.
In the Santa Susana Mountains near Porter Ranch, a Los Angeles neighborhood, the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility was evacuated and surrounded by firefighters and engines from both LA county and city departments fighting fires „in and around” the facility, a SoCal Gas update said.
A red flag warning was in effect in Southern California through Saturday evening, with winds expected to reach as high as 60 mph and some gusts hitting 70 mph in the mountains. Red flag warnings are issued when warm temperatures, very low humidities, and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.
The fire forced the closing of numerous roadways, including the 210 Freeway and the 5 Freeway, causing a massive traffic jam.
Hundreds of truckers were waylaid by the chaos, unable to get past highway patrol checkpoints on some of the region’s busiest interstates.
“Everybody’s packages are going to be late,” said Dee Carter, of Aurora, Colorado, who was hauling Amazon deliveries from a warehouse in Fontana, California, to Sacramento.
Carter, whose big rig was parked by the side of the 118 Freeway, was trying without luck to reroute his way around the closures. Then suddenly, as he was settling down to make steak and eggs in his sleeper cab for breakfast, the freeway reopened.
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For Eyad Jarjour, it was not the first time that a wildfire had crept within feet of the hillside home on Jolette Avenue near the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles where he has lived for 14 years.
But this time it burned two of his neighbor’s homes to the ground only feet away on the quiet cul-de-sac and crept into his backyard. He said he escaped with his family, Including two elderly inlaws, at the first hint his home was in danger, about 9:30 p. m. PST Thursday. When he returned at 3 a.m., his neighbors’ houses were in flames.
“It took us about 10 minutes to evacuate,“ Jarjour said. But it hurts. “These neighbors are our family… It’s a cul-de-sac. We know each other. We care about each other.“
He said he got out with just a few necessities, important papers and bills, based on past evacuation experience.
He left again and was relieved when he returned at 10 a.m. Friday morning to discover his house of been saved. The air was still thick with smoke and ash, fire crews at the ready. But the danger had appeared to have passed.
He inspected the remains of one of the houses that had burned to the ground. Water squirted from a broken pipe and flames from an open gas line were still visible. A burned out 1960s classic muscle car was parked next to the house.
Tragic as it was, the wildfire was not unexpected by Jarjour.
“We expect this to happen because we live in a fire hazard area,“ he said.
Another family on Jolette Avenue did not wait to get out when they saw flames. A house had caught fire at the end of the street.
“I saw the house burning and I said ‘Oh my God,’” recalled Rose Long as she surveyed the damage Friday. Their house had been saved.
There wasn’t much time to get out. “It was going so fast,” said her son George Long.
In Calimesa, the Sandalwood fire erupted when the driver of a commercial trash truck dumped a smoldering load to prevent the vehicle from catching fire.
Dry grass quickly ignited and winds gusting to 50 mph blew the fire into the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park about 75 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The park has 110 home sites and was built in 1958, according to its website. Fire officials were investigating what caused the trash in the truck to catch fire in Calimesa.
The Pacific Gas and Electric Co. utility said more than 300,000 Northern California businesses and residences were still in the dark Friday, even though power had been restored to 426,000. The company had switched off electricity in vulnerable areas to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires during dry, windy weather.
When Gabe Genson got out of class Thursday night and drove home to his hilly Granada Hills neighborhood, he was shocked at what he encountered.
“It was literally panic up here” Genson said. “The fire move so fast it was insane.”
He said his family had lived through two previous fires, but this one moved in quicker than the others. He said he monitored television news when he got home and as soon as they learned it had jumped the Golden State (5) Freeway. they knew they had to get out.
“There was no fire department, no cops, by the time I saw the flames in my backyard.“ He said at that point, the fire was less than 100 yards away. “You’re seeing flames coming down the hill.“
He packed up with his parents and their 15-year-old mini schnauzer Spot and left their Tuscan Drive home. He said they went to his grandparents’ house.
“We got back here at 7 a,m.” said Genson, 22, a University of Arizona senior who is taking an LSAT prep class to apply for law school. “I had a good sense the house was OK.” And it was.
A McDonald’s restaurant in the Granada Hills section of Los Angeles became a de facto evacuation center into Friday morning as residents fleeing the wildfire jammed the normally closed dining room and stayed all night.
About 70 to 80 patrons waited out the evacuation orders in a dining room that is usually closed at midnight – with only a drive-thru window providing overnight service, said manager Lidia Hinojosa.
The McDonald’s, owned by the widow of a firefighter, did its best to serve the community in the disaster offering food to firefighters, police and other first responders free of charge. Lots of the food went straight to the fire lines.
“I saw some big orders – some taking 30 or 40 sandwiches at a time,” Hinojosa said. The restaurant managed to stay open all day with most of its workers and hadn’t run out of food.
Gabrielle Paluch and the Associated Press contributed reporting.