Nine schools in southern California remain closed for the second day as firefighters tackle a smokey blaze burning in the foothills east of Los Angeles. The fire, which broke out in San Bernardino National Forest near the wealthy suburban community of Rancho Cucamonga around 8am on Wednesday, has burned over 1,000 acres and was reported to be just 10 percent contained Thursday morning.
Powerful Santa Ana winds, with some gusts topping 100 mph, helped spread the erratic fire and kept low-flying firefighting aircraft grounded. The winds, currently quiet, are expected to pick up again later this morning as firefighters prepare for another day’s work. The unseasonably warm weather, which swept into southern California earlier this week, shattering long-standing heat records, is expected to last until Friday.
While the original order for the evacuation of 1,650 homes in the area has been canceled, officials are reminding residents to be ready at any moment to leave should the situation take a turn for the worse.
California is currently suffering through one of the worst droughts in decades. According to this week’s release of the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state of California remains in “moderate” to “exceptional” drought. Last week marked the first time in the monitor’s 15-year history that this has happened. The vast majority of California falls into the worst two drought categories, “extreme” or “exceptional.”
“The drought has absolutely set the stage for a potentially very busy and very dangerous fire season,” Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told Reuters. “As we move into the summer months, conditions are only going to get hotter, they’re only going to get dryer, and so the likelihood of large and damaging fires increases,” he said.
Wildfire season in California may have only officially just begun, but between January 1 and April 5, Cal Fire responded to approximately 900 wildfires — around triple the average for that period. In early April, the National Interagency Fire Center forecast that California would have above normal potential for significant fires in the southern part of the state in April, and throughout much of the state in May, June and July. Cal Fire has hired nearly 100 additional seasonal firefighters now stationed in the north and middle part of the state. In addition to setting up ideal conditions for a particularly destructive wildfire season, the direct and indirect economic costs of the drought have been estimated at $7.48 billion, including 800,000 acres of farmland left idle, and 20,000 jobs lost.
A recent study by the American Geophysical Union found that in the last 30 years in the western United States, both the number of fires and the area that they burn have increased. The study, which looked at the 17-state region stretching from Nebraska to California found that wildfires larger than 1,000 acres have increased by about seven fires a year from 1984 to 2011. It also found that the amount of area these fires burned increased each year at about 140 square miles, or 90,000 acres, per year.
In his 2015 budget, President Obama called for shifting the costs of fighting the biggest wildfires to the same emergency fund that handles other natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. It is designed to avoid making the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior drain fire prevention budgets to pay for big wildfires.