Climate

California’s Largest Fire Is Moving At An ‘Unprecedented’ Rate

CREDIT: AP Photo/Josh Edelson

CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. The fire has charred more than 60,000 acres and destroyed at least 24 residences.

Wildfires continue to rage in California, where the largest of the 21 blazes covered 65,000 acres Tuesday morning and has killed at least one person.

Four other people have been killed this fire season in California, which started early this year and has been exacerbated by drought and high temperatures. There are also active wildfires in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and Alaska.

A map from the US Forest Service shows fires all along the western states.

A map from the US Forest Service shows fires all along the Western states.

CREDIT: US Forest Service

At least two dozen homes have been destroyed by the Rocky Fire in Northern California, which jumped Highway 20 — a planned containment line — on Monday night. The blaze is only 12 percent contained and is not expected to be contained for at least another week, according to CAL FIRE, the state’s fire department.

The Rocky Fire burned 20,000 acres in five hours, an “unprecedented” rate, according to Daniel Berlant, chief of public information for CAL FIRE.

“We’ve been running fires here since the beginning of January,” Berlant said on KFBK radio Tuesday morning. The fire season “never really ended last year,” he added, blaming the four years of drought in the state. He said thousands of homes are still threatened.

But not only do fires present a risk to the lives and homes of people in the affected areas, fires also dangerous to human health, studies have shown. Anyone whose air has ever been inundated with smoke and particulate matter from a nearby (or hundreds of miles away) fire knows how difficult it can be to breathe in that situation. Research released earlier this summer found a link between heart problems and particulate matter from fires.

Experts warned that this season was going to be bad.

The length of the fire season — and the number of large fires — is expected to increase as an effect of climate change. In June, a study looking at global patterns found that wildfire seasons are worsening worldwide. The researchers found that as global temperatures have increased (by about .2°C decade since 1979), the length of wildfire seasons has increased by 18.7 percent. In turn, a longer, harsher fire season could exacerbate climate change, releasing carbon stored in forests into the atmosphere.

Drought — which has been linked to climate change — has put the western United States at particular risk this year. Drought not only makes it easier for fires to start (wildfires are usually a natural occurrence and are often set off by heat lightning), it makes it more difficult for firefighters to get water. In April, some reservoirs used for fighting large fires in California went dry due to the loss of snowpack, a key source of water for the state.