Powerful Winds Spark New Blazes in California’s Year-Round Fire ‘Season’

Warm winter weather and strong gusts have led to an early start for 2021’s fires, following a record-breaking year of blazes in 2020.

Unusually warm and dry conditions coupled with powerful wind gusts have ignited a spate of winter wildfires that call into question the idea that California has a “fire season” at all any more.

Residents of several communities in the Santa Cruz mountains were ordered to evacuate by the local sheriff’s office Tuesday morning as California’s fire agency, Cal Fire, responded to more than a dozen new vegetation fires across the area. Some of the fires were ignited when power lines were toppled by high winds; others were wind-driven reignitions of areas that burned in 2020, Cal Fire said. By midday Tuesday, six fires in the area were still burning.

Lake Fire
The Lake Fire in Angeles National Forest that burned from August 12 to September 28 last year and destroyed 31,089 acres near Lake Hughes. The warm winter weather has seen decades-old single-day temperature records fall in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Photo by Thomas Hart.

The evacuations came as Californians grappled with the latest example of the reality of climate crisis: red flag warnings – the National Weather Service’s highest level of caution for wildfire activity – across much of the state in January. The early start to 2021’s fires follows 2020’s record-breaking year, which saw wildfires that burned approximately 4.26m acres and killed 33 people.

“We’re not seeing ‘fire season’ any more,” said Issac Sanchez, battalion chief of communications for Cal Fire Sacramento. “It’s just one big fire year, where we can be prepared for and expect a large destructive fire at any point.”

While it’s not unusual for fires to start at any point in the year, what is concerning now is the warmer, drier weather and receptive vegetation that could allow those fire starts to spread, Sanchez said. Add in the powerful and dry winds – which reached 100 mph near Sacramento overnight – and you have all the ingredients for fire.

“The fact that the winds are blowing is not unusual, but what is unusual is the higher temperatures and dry conditions,” Sanchez said. “We’re just not seeing enough rain to turn the corner.”

A vegetation fire in Kern county, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, grew to 200 acres Tuesday afternoon, with “rapid spread” caused by winds nearing 50 mph, the local fire department said.

The warm winter weather has seen decades-old single-day temperature records fall in Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to the National Weather Service. This follows a 2020 that was the hottest year on record, according to Nasa.

Local utilities have turned off the electricity for tens of thousands of residents, most of them in southern California, due to the risk of high Santa Ana winds downing power lines and igniting fires. The so-called “public safety power shutoffs” are an increasingly common fire prevention tactic for the state’s utilities in the wake of the deadly Camp fire in Paradise, California, which was started by Pacific Gas & Electric’s faulty equipment and killed 85 people.

An additional 260,000 customers are at risk of losing their power in southern California, according to Southern California Edison.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, called the overnight fire starts in northern California “nothing short of incredible” for this time of year.

“As California’s wildfire crisis escalated in recent years, I have speculated with climate & fire colleagues that we might start to see wind-driven *winter* wildfire outbreaks in NorCal,” he said on Twitter. “2021 is empirically demonstrating that answer to that question is: yes. Wow.”

Sanchez called on the public to adjust to the new reality of year-round fire.

“We don’t have a time of year when we’re not prepared to aggressively respond, and we need the public to be prepared right there with us,” he said, urging homeowners to perform necessary maintenance of defensible spaces and all residents to be prepared for possible evacuations.

“They need to recognize that the fact that it’s January doesn’t make a difference any more.”

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

Older Black Farmers See Little Hope in Biden’s Agriculture Pick

Black farmers have been disregarded by the USDA for years. Will anything change in Tom Vilsack’s second stint?

Summer Sewell The Guardian

From Cradle to Grave

To get to a healthier pattern of consumption, to complete the cycle and close the loop, we’ve got to get used to passing things on again.

Sandra Goldmark

Wildfire, Landslides Threaten California’s Endangered Black Abalone

In the wake of a record-breaking wildfire season and an intensifying rainy season, debris flows wreak havoc on Big Sur's rocky intertidal habitats.

Anne Marshall-Chalmers

Her First Ski Home

Our child may not remember individual moments in the Alaskan backcountry, but they will wire her mind to the outside world.

Tim Lydon

Not Another Brick in the Seawall

In a beach village in Japan, surfers and scientists oppose a proposed seawall that would threaten an important coastal ecosystem.

Kim Feldmann

No, Frozen Wind Turbines Aren’t the Main Culprit for Texas’ Power Outages

Lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans across the state during a major winter storm.

Erin Douglas Ross Ramsey The Texas Tribune