Why Does California Have So Many Wildfires? by Kendra Pierre-Louis and John Schwartz 5 mins readAgain, California is aflame.More than 400,000 acres have been burned in Northern and Central California, with many of the fires set off by nearly 11,000 lightning strikes. High temperatures and strong winds have made the situation even worse.Evacuation orders in Santa Cruz County covered 48,000 people, including the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and those being evacuated must weigh the risks of seeking refuge in evacuation shelters in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. People living far beyond the burn zone are struggling with the smoke, and beloved sites like Big Basin Redwoods State Park have been badly damaged.What is it about California that makes wildfires so catastrophic? There are four key ingredients.The (Changing) Climate The first is California’s climate.“Fire, in some ways, is a very simple thing,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “As long as stuff is dry enough and there’s a spark, then that stuff will burn.”California, like much of the West, gets most of its moisture in the fall and winter. Its vegetation then spends much of the summer slowly drying out because of a lack of rainfall and warmer temperatures. That vegetation then serves as kindling for fires.But while California’s climate has always been fire-prone, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable. “Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming,” Williams said. That dries out vegetation even more, making it more likely to burn.California’s fire record dates back to 1932; the 10 largest fires since then have occurred since 2000, including the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in state history, and this year’s LNU Lightning Complex, which is burning west of Sacramento.“In pretty much every single way, a perfect recipe for fire is just kind of written in California,” Williams said. “Nature creates the perfect conditions for fire, as long as people are there to start the fires. But then climate change, in a few different ways, seems to also load the dice toward more fire in the future.”People Even if the conditions are right for a wildfire, you still need something or someone to ignite it. Sometimes the trigger is nature, like a lightning strike, but more often than not humans are responsible.“Many of these large fires that you’re seeing in Southern California and impacting the areas where people are living are human-caused,” said Nina Oakley, an assistant research professor of atmospheric science at the Desert Research Institute.Many deadly fires have been started by downed power lines. The 2018 Carr Fire, the state’s sixth-largest on record, started when a truck blew out its tire and its rim scraped the pavement, sending out sparks.“California has a lot of people and a really long dry season,” Williams said. “People are always creating possible sparks, and as the dry season wears on and stuff is drying out more and more, the chance that a spark comes off a person at the wrong time just goes up. And that’s putting aside arson.”There’s another way people have contributed to wildfires: in their choices of where to live. People are increasingly moving into areas near forests, known as the urban-wildland interface, that are inclined to burn.“In Nevada, we have many, many large fires, but typically they’re burning open spaces,” Oakley said. “They’re not burning through neighborhoods.”Fire Suppression It’s counterintuitive, but the U.S.’ history of suppressing wildfires has actually made present-day wildfires worse.“For the last century we fought fire, and we did pretty well at it across all of the Western United States,” Williams said. “And every time we fought a fire successfully, that means that a bunch of stuff that would have burned didn’t burn. And so over the last hundred years we’ve had an accumulation of plants in a lot of areas.“And so in a lot of California now when fires start, those fires are burning through places that have a lot more plants to burn than they would have if we had been allowing fires to burn for the last hundred years.”In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has been trying to rectify the previous practice through the use of prescribed, or “controlled,” burns.The Santa Ana Winds The second stage of this year’s fire season is yet to come.Each fall, strong gusts known as the Santa Ana winds bring dry air from the Great Basin area of the West into Southern California, said Fengpeng Sun, an assistant professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.Sun is a co-author of a 2015 study that suggests that California has two distinct fire seasons. One, which runs from June through September and is driven by a combination of warmer and drier weather, is the Western fire season that most people think of. Those wildfires tend to be more inland, in higher-elevation forests.But Sun and his co-authors also identified a second fire season that runs from October through April and is driven by the Santa Ana winds. Those fires tend to spread three times faster and burn closer to urban areas, and they were responsible for 80% of the economic losses over two decades beginning in 1990.
It’s not just that the Santa Ana winds dry out vegetation; they also move embers around, spreading fires.
Which brings us back to climate change.
Ultimately, determining the links between any individual fire and climate change takes time and analysis from the evolving discipline of attribution science. But the effects of the greenhouse gases humans produce underlie everything that occurs in the atmosphere, and the tendency of climate change to make dry places drier over time is a warning to the West of a fiery future.
This article originally appeared in 2018. It was updated in August 2020.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — A wildfire was raging outside, but inside the evacuation centers there were risks, too.
Natalie Lyons and Craig Phillips had to make a decision Thursday morning as they sat in their ash-coated Toyota Tundra under the smoky orange sky in Santa Cruz.
After fleeing the small town of Felton on Wednesday as a series of wildfires continued to burn along the central coast of California, they sought refuge at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, an evacuation site, but the building was full — and Lyons was scared of contracting the coronavirus in an enclosed, indoor space.
“There’s some people coughing; their masks are hanging down,” said Lyons, 54, who said she had lung problems. “I’d rather sleep in my car than end up in a hospital bed.”
So that is exactly what the couple did. Their car served as a makeshift bed across the street from the auditorium, and Lyons tried to get comfortable in the back seat with their Chihuahua-terrier mix and shellshocked cat. “I hardly got any sleep,” she said.
More than 25,000 people have been forced to evacuate from the rural areas of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, Cal Fire said, and many have struggled to find a place to go, especially with the pandemic still limiting indoor gatherings.
At least five hotels in Santa Cruz said they were filled to capacity Wednesday night as evacuees sought refuge from the smoke outside. And midday Thursday, Santa Cruz County urged tourists and other visitors to leave so displaced residents could find a bed to sleep in. Even places set up specifically to house evacuees were forced to turn people away because of the need for social distancing, which Jessi Bond, the Civic Auditorium supervisor, called “heartbreaking.”
“There’s really two emergencies happening, and we need to address both,” she said.
The fires have killed at least four people. Three bodies were recovered on Thursday from a house that burned down in Napa County, Henry Wofford, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said. In Solano County, a man who lived on Pleasants Valley Road was found dead during a damage assessment, Sheriff Tom Ferrara said on Facebook.
The wildfires, caused by an extraordinary period of lightning strikes, continued to rage throughout California on Thursday, burning more than 300,000 acres in the state. One group of fires, the LNU Lightning Complex in Napa Valley, grew to 131,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 homes and other buildings, many of them in Vacaville, near Sacramento. Fire officials said Thursday that they were hopeful they had stopped the fire from spreading further into the city, but more than 30,000 buildings remained threatened.
East of Silicon Valley, a grouping known as the SCU Lightning Complex grew to more than 137,000 acres — nearly the size of Chicago — but has largely been kept away from more populated areas, and firefighters have contained a small portion of it.
The central coast fires in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, called the CZU August Lightning Complex, severely damaged California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has ordered nearly 28,000 people to leave their homes because of the fire, which swelled to about 40,000 acres Thursday and remains completely uncontrolled. The University of California, Santa Cruz, campus was placed under a mandatory evacuation order Thursday night, hours after university officials urged anyone on campus to leave voluntarily.
At least two other people have died in the firefighting effort: a helicopter pilot on a water-dropping mission who was killed in a crash in Fresno County and a worker for Pacific Gas and Electric who had been clearing electrical lines and was found unresponsive in his vehicle in Solano County.
In Santa Cruz, about 40 people were sheltering inside the Civic Auditorium, but Bond said more than twice that many could have been admitted if spreading the virus was not a concern. Inside, evacuees were dealing with the realities of being forced together during a pandemic: masks at all times and temperature checks at the front door.
Those who were permitted to stay used tents that were spaced throughout the auditorium, a far cry from the dense array of cots that dotted the floor when the building was used as a shelter after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
“I’m not sure if tent fabric is preventive against COVID,” Bond said. “But again, just giving people that barrier, that kind of more shelter-in-place type situation rather than being in back-to-back-to-back cots.”
Evacuees further up the coast near Pescadero slept in trailers in parking lots or on the beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Others made desperate pleas to family members and friends to take them in, and local authorities said they preferred that people assimilate into so-called quarantine pods rather than brave the virus risks of an indoor shelter. Experts have said the risk of catching the coronavirus is much higher indoors, where still air and enclosed spaces can cause viral particles to concentrate and be inhaled.
Cenaida Perez said she smelled smoke from her house in Vacaville early Wednesday morning and ran outside with her 3-year-old daughter, Adriana. She is sheltering at a nearby library but said she was worried about the coronavirus.
“Who isn’t going to be scared of that virus? It has killed so many,” Perez, 36, said in Spanish. “But also, I don’t want to die like this, burned to death.”
At the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville, another evacuation site, RV owners set up camp in parking lots, while others slept in their cars or pitched tents on grass fields amid the smoke. Rachel Muñoz said that she, her husband and two children took a chance and slept in a tent inside a fairground building after evacuating the town of Ben Lomond.
“If I get COVID, it’s probably going to be here,” she said.
But there was not much room to sleep in her pickup truck, which was already occupied by 16 chickens and the pine shavings they nest in.
“These are my babies,” said Muñoz, 51, while rigging netting to the back of her truck so she could leave the door open and give her hens some fresh air.
Even far from the fires, the air smelled like smoke, and ash flakes covered cars and backyards.
The air quality around the Bay Area remained dangerously unhealthy in some places Thursday. In Concord, northeast of Oakland, the air quality index surpassed 200, meaning the air was “very unhealthy.” The index can reach 500, but anything above 100 is considered unhealthy, particularly for people who have breathing complications.
People should avoid going outside at all, especially to exercise, while the air quality is in the unhealthy range, said Dr. Afif El-Hasan, a lung health specialist in Orange County. He said the smoke could also make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus if they were infected.
“Anything that weakens the lungs, like really bad air, which causes the lungs to lose some of their ability to fight infection, is going to be an issue,” El-Hasan said. “In theory, breathing in a lot of bad air can make you more susceptible to a more serious COVID illness.”
The double risk of dangerous air and the coronavirus poses a dilemma, El-Hasan said, making decisions for evacuees even more difficult.
Back in Santa Cruz, Lyons and Phillips, her boyfriend, were planning their next move. Phillips, 65, called one hotel after another, as far away as Monterey, but they all said the same thing: Sorry, we’re full.
He packed his guitars, and she brought pet supplies and DVDs of her daughter’s childhood. The couple said they will be living out of their cars for the foreseeable future.
Phillips, who retired from his job with a Bay Area air quality agency in April, said the past few months have been far from the easy life he had hoped for.
“I retired into the pandemic and now homelessness,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
3 large corrals approved for western US wild horse roundupsFILE – In this June 29, 2018, file photo, wild horses drink from a watering hole outside Salt Lake City. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has approved construction of corrals in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah that can hold more than 8,000 wild horses captured on federal rangeland in the West, a move that should allow the agency to accelerate roundups that have been slowed by excess capacity at existing holding facilities. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
The new corrals would be built on private land and operated by contractors near Canon City, Colorado; Sutherland, Utah and Wheatland, Wyoming. An existing corral near Axtel, Utah would be expanded. The agency hasn’t provided any cost estimates.
State and county officials in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado also support expanding holding capacity.
“The creation of contracting for off-range corrals is a critical first step in the achievement of AML on the public lands,” the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office said.
The Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Utah’s Beaver County Commission and Colorado’s White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts also filed formal comments supporting the project.
“We assert that the management of wild free-roaming horses and burros requires the BLM to constantly manage the population and herd size of these animals and that gathering excess animals as they approach AML is compulsory and necessary for health of the animals and the rangeland,” the Beaver County Commission said.
Wyoming’s agriculture department said a roundup there recently was suspended because there wasn’t enough room in off-range corrals.
“This event has led to the BLM not meeting its removal goals and allowing excess wild horses to remain on the range and continue to negatively impact the natural resources and rangeland health,” the department said.
Mustang advocates have said the roundups are aimed at placating ranchers at horses’ expense, arguing that cattle do far more damage to ranchland than mustangs.
The American Wild Horse Campaign has said that the government’s population quotas are often outdated and not rooted in solid scientific data and that the mustangs must be permitted to roam ranges in federally protected management areas established under the Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
“Instead of spending one billion tax dollars to round up and warehouse wild horses, the BLM should invest resources to humanely manage these iconic animals in their habitats on public lands,” Kuhn said.
Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation, said proper management of the horses will require a robust fertility control program.
“Scaling up fertility control as BLM’s primary management tool would reduce roundups over time,” she said. “The longer BLM delays, the greater the threat to the horses.”