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.
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.”
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