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‘Mother Nature Turned Off The Spigot’: California Wildfires Fueled By ‘Remarkable’ Dry Weather Conditions

By Katie Valentine

"‘Mother Nature Turned Off The Spigot’: California Wildfires Fueled By ‘Remarkable’ Dry Weather Conditions"

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A Southern California wildfire that burned through 8,000 acres yesterday has marked an early and ominous start to the state’s fire season.

The fire, fueled by unusually dry conditions and 25 to 60 mph winds that usually aren’t seen until late fall, has damaged 15 homes and forced the evacuation of hundreds of Ventura County residents. As of today, the so-called Springs fire spans more than 15 square miles, with weather forecasts predicting temperatures in the 90s and continuing strong winds.

California has experienced record low rainfall since the “rain year” began in July 2012, with Los Angeles receiving only about five inches of rain since then. Though the winter and early spring months are typically some of Califorina’s wettest, since 2013 began, downtown L.A. has received less than two inches of rain — a fraction of the 11 inches that’s typical for the region at this time of year. The year’s low rainfall coupled with strong Santa Ana winds have created perfect conditions for wildfires in the region, as climatologist William Patzert told the L.A. Times:

It was promising up to December and then all of sudden Mother Nature turned off the spigot,” he said. “It’s remarkable to get Santa Anas in May.… Every way you look at it, it’s been remarkable, unusual and incendiary.

So far, firefighters in California have responded to more than 680 wildfires this year — 200 more the average for this point in the season. In addition to the Springs fire, a wildfire in Riverside County east of L.A. burned through at least 2,950 acres and destroyed two homes before being contained on Thursday, and several fires erupted in Northern California this week as well. The fire risk isn’t expected to let up as the summer goes on — forecasters doubt the Southern California region will receive substantial rain this summer, which has led federal officials to warn of a potentially “devastating” fire season for the state.

And California’s isn’t alone. Multiple studies have linked the risk of stronger, more frequent wildfires to the effects of climate change — most recently, a federal report warned that climate change will double the area of the U.S. burned by wildfires by 2050. Thanks to dry, hot conditions in much of the western U.S., the National Interagency Fire Center predicted this week that fire season could begin early in Oregon and Washington this year as well as in California.

In addition to California’s low rainfall, the state is experiencing decreased snowpack this year, a problem that, as well as exacerbating the state’s dry conditions, spells trouble for California’s freshwater supply. California’s snowpack levels are only at 17 percent of normal readings for this time of year. Water from snowpack usually accounts for up to 75 percent of western California’s freshwater supply and 30 percent of freshwater to the state as a whole.

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19 Responses to ‘Mother Nature Turned Off The Spigot’: California Wildfires Fueled By ‘Remarkable’ Dry Weather Conditions

  1. Barry says:

    Jeff, could you normalize things a bit more? For example as a Michigander, I have no idea of what the normal fire season is, or what it means when something happens in May, etc.

    I don’t know how many fires are normal, or acreage, etc.

    • caerbannog says:

      Here in Southern Cal, we typically get no measurable rain from mid-April to mid-November.

      Nearly all of our rain falls between November and April. So when it is bone-dry enough for megafires to run wild at the beginning of May, it means that by the beginning of the normal wildfire season (late Summer to mid-Fall), we are likely to be toast (figuratively and literally).

      The fire burning in Ventura County would be fairly typical if it occurred in September or October. But a fire like that in May (when moisture levels in the brush should be too high for fires to spread quickly) is, to this lifelong Southern Californian, more than a bit worrying.

      We are too far west to pick up enough monsoonal moisture for a summer rainy season, so aside from isolated thunderstorms in the mountains and deserts, we are typically bone-dry all Summer.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        ‘Typical’, I’m afraid, doesn’t exist anymore. By next week you could be saturated, and its likely to be too much, too soon. I hope you get some rain. I hope we get some, too. Another dry autumn, winter, spring here and south-eastern Australia will be a tinder-box like 2009.

  2. Jim B says:

    I look at the US drought monitor and all I can wonder is “what the hell is this years fire season going to end up looking like?”

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    I lived through the 1993 Malibu fire, which destroyed over 200 homes. The main cause was radiant heat from the fire igniting the wood framing in the walls. I was already a member of the Malibu Contractors Association, and tried to get them to switch to steel. Nah- too much trouble, and architects and GC’s didn’t want to spend the extra $3 a foot. I did two houses out of steel. They’d rather use that money for a decorator kitchen, or a creek through the living room.

    I’ve lived here for 30 years, and never seen a fire in the Santa Monica mountains or nearby this time of year. It normally takes all summer for dead brush to accumulate enough to ignite and spread quickly. Santa Ana winds (east to west, hot from the desert) only appear from late August to September and October, when fires are worst. We’ll still have these winds in October, and another giant Malibu fire is possible. Flora are adapted to it, especially chaparral, but wealthy trophy home owners are not. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Streisand etc may choose to spend this fall in Paris or New York.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      The problem is that the flora are mostly adapted to periodic fire, not intense fire every year. A lot of floral communities, particularly heathlands, are threatened over here by too frequent fires.I believe you’ve made a big mistake planting eucalypts too, because they will spontaneously combust at around 50 degrees C, because of the volatile gases they emit, which is why their canopy fires progress so rapidly.

      • Merrelyn Emery says:

        Yes, why did they rush into eucalypts? Do you know Mike? ME

      • Mike Roddy says:

        You’re right about eucalyptus, Mulga, and the shedded bark is a big fire hazard, too. I recommend an excellent book about eucalypt plantations called Pulping The South. Like our desert creosote, they seem to gobble all the water and nutrients around, creating their own monocultures.

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          Yep-that’s the blighters. They like fire, so they drop leaves, bark etc, to produce a nice understory of tinder ripe for the burning. And they explode in hot fires, yet, unlike animals, houses and people, they shoot back to life after all but the hottest infernos. Unfortunately for us all the infernos are getting hotter and hotter.

      • Jeff Poole says:

        Don’t be too hard on the Eucalypts… The native (endangered in its home range believe it or not ) monterey pines don’t merely burn – with all that pine oil they explode!

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          Damned if you do and damned if you do. I thank Gawd for the Quercus robur that the builders of this little place planted to the north. Lots of lovely shade and a fire-wall in one direction at least. I look at the stand of eucalypts across the paddocks with greater trepidation.

        • Merrelyn Emery says:

          Thanks Jeff, I was feeling guilty about another of our noxious exports, ME

          • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

            They hate them in Portugal. The locals pull them up when plantations are planted. Iberia is turning into an extension of the Sahara, so you can’t really blame them. There will, of course, be money in it, somewhere, for the usual suspects, however.

  4. MarkF says:

    one of these days, one of the massive, pine beetle destroyed giant match stick forests is going to go up.

    I’m thinking British Columbia is a good candidate.

  5. Bernd says:

    A very good article from Katie. Good comments too!

    What does it all mean?
    Fire management does not really work and burns millions unnecessary $. This is no insult to firefighters, they do their absolutely best.

    What is to do?
    1. Reduce the CO2 level drastically.
    2. Change of the fire management, it is much cheaper to avoid and fight any fire developing, than to fight large fires out of control.
    Small fires emerging in the roots will not get out of control and will not expand, if they are extinguished early right after a fire develops. This is presently not being done!

    Apart from this, fires emit also carbon (dioxide), therefore worsen the hole fire situation, at the end of the day it is fueling even more and larger fires in the overall progress of the situation.
    The situation now is a slap in the face to those which say, “natural burning is normal”.
    Natural burning under this dry heat conditions with present heat waves never occurred in the recent history so early.

    All they can hope there now is, wait that the sky will open its doors to ease the present situation. But the hole issue will not be from the table until the end of the fire season.

    For now, I foresee already the cry for more 747s to fight the fires, instead of many more small logistics and tools that fight small fires!!!
    Hundreds of years ago they did not have 747s either.

  6. Bill D. says:

    California is gradually turning into a desert and there’s no solution for the region’s growing water shortage or raging wildfires. The irony is that California state officials seem to believe they can forestall the impacts of climate change by enacting new environmental laws that apply only within the state’s boundaries. How absurd.

    • petronelle says:

      At the least they may inspire other states to do the same. At the least they can say they did their best. Epitaph: She did her best, but it wasn’t enough.