Two weeks ago, the governors of Washington and Oregon declared states of emergency as a result of the major fires burning across their states.
On Saturday, California followed suit, with Governor Jerry Brown declaring a state of emergency because of the threats posed by dozens of wildfires to the northern and central parts of the state: — and the damage wildfires have caused to Amador, Butte, El Dorado, Humboldt, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Mendocino, Modoc, Shasta and Siskiyou counties.
Wildfires have damaged infrastructure and residents’ homes in many of these rural counties, often triggered by dry lightning and fueled by heat, drought, and water-starved, kindling-like forests.
Brown’s proclamation directs all state agencies and residents to follow the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the State Emergency Plan. He mobilized the California National Guard to “support disaster response and relief efforts and coordinate with all relevant state agencies.” Stating that the wildfire emergency is larger than any single local government can reasonably handle, Brown said he secured a federal grant to cover 75 percent of the cost to fight a wildfire that spread south into California from Oregon. Brown also notes that “recent lightning storms and high temperatures have further increased this risk and the spread of additional wildfires” in the proclamation.
Dennis Mathisen, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the LA Times that “we’re seeing fire behavior we wouldn’t normally see until September.”
“With warmer weather conditions, low humidity and some wind, and all you need is a spark, and a series of dry lightning strikes, and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Mathisen said the fire situation was “exacerbated by the drought situation” that has been affecting the state so badly that it is now the most severe drought that has ever been recorded in the state. Fifty-eight percent of the state is under “exceptional drought.” The U.S. Drought Monitor said that the moisture of the state’s topsoil’s moisture is “nearly depleted,” a key factor in estimates that California’s nation-leading agricultural sector will lose $2.2 billion in 2014. The spread of this drought can be seen in this terrifying gif courtesy of Mother Jones. And a hotter-than-average summer also feeds into the whole fiasco, as water expert Peter Gleick points out:
Leading climatologists have said that climate change has played a significant role in worsening the epic drought. “The extra heat from the increase in heat trapping gases in the atmosphere over six months is equivalent to running a small microwave oven at full power for about half an hour over every square foot of the land under the drought,” climatologist Kevin Trenberth told Climate Progress’ Joe Romm in a January email. “No wonder wild fires have increased! So climate change undoubtedly affects the intensity and duration of drought, and it has consequences. California must be very vigilant with regard to wild fires as the spring arrives.”
Some of the worst fires tearing through the western part of the U.S. right now:
- Day Fire: started Wednesday, burned 12,500 acres, threatening 150 residences, 15 percent contained
- Oregon Gulch Fire: began Wednesday, burned 33 square miles, destroyed three homes, threatening 270 others in California and Oregon
- Log, Little Deer, and July Complex Fires: sparked Tuesday, burned around 7,000 acres near the Klamath National Forest, threatening homes, timber forests, and the Union Pacific Railroad
- Eiler Fire: started from a lightning strike and expanded rapidly in size on Saturday, zero percent contained, residents are being evacuated in the Thousand Lakes Wilderness and the Hat Creek Valley
- Bald Fire: burning 6,000 acres of heavy brush and timber in the Lassen National Forest, evacuations ordered for Little Valley Road, the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad shut down, and extreme conditions likely with only five percent contained
- Coffee Fire: spreading at a moderate to rapid pace, consumed 300 acres in the Trinity Alps Wilderness
- French Fire: started last Sunday, likely caused by an abandoned campfire, burned 11,466 acres, with 1,763 personnel working on the incident and only 15 percent contained
- Beaver Fire: burned 850 acres so far, spreading along with the nearby Cleghorn Fire, with Sheriff’s deputies going door-to-door serving mandatory evacuation notices
- Lodge Lightning Complex Fire: burned 902 acres in Mendocino county near Laytonville, twenty percent contained
- Sand Fire: started a week ago, burned 4,200 acres, consumed 20 residences and 47 other buildings, but fortunately 98 percent contained
- El Portal Fire: burning 4,700 acres in Yosemite National Park, 78 percent contained
Oregon reported 30 fires in 24 hours, according to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center, and a new wildfire burned down up to eight homes in Washington State.
As these fires spread across the West and governors call for federal help, the GOP-led House of Representatives refuse to move legislation that would make it easier for the federal government to fund wildfire fighting without dipping into fire prevention funding.