New fires added to the evacuations and destruction in California over the weekend, as Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a state of emergency in two northern counties.
The Valley Fire, just north of San Francisco, covered 62,000 acres and was only 5 percent contained as of Monday morning. The Butte Fire, due east of the Bay Area, has burned 71,063 acres and is 30 percent contained, according to the state’s Cal Fire agency. Four firefighters were injured over the weekend, and hundreds of homes have been destroyed. There’s also one report of a death from the fire, but it hasn’t yet been confirmed.
2015 has been a record year for wildfires across the West, and California has been hit particularly hard. This year, Cal Fire has fought nearly 5,000 wildfires over 150,000 acres, the agency reported. But the worst might be yet to come. Officials noted that, historically, September and October are the worst months for wildfires in California.
The state’s drought is primarily responsible for increasing wildfire danger year-round. California is now in its fourth year of a historic dry spell — one that’s been linked to climate change. Dry underbrush and trees ignite more easily, and fires spread more quickly. Earlier this year, officials called a fire’s spread “unprecedented.”
“Since 2000 we’ve been seeing larger and more damaging fires,” Daniel Berlant, chief of public information for Cal Fire, also told NBC News in April. “What we’re seeing now is that the rain is starting later and stopping much earlier. The fires are burning at explosive speed because the vegetation is so dry and that allows them to get much larger.”
Over the weekend, 1,000 firefighters were battling the Butte Fire. This manpower comes at a tremendous cost to the state, which spent an estimated $4 billion fighting wildfires between 2003 and 2012.
And that’s not even counting the federal spending on fighting fires. The Forest Service spent about $1.2 billion on fire suppression in fiscal year 2014, CNBC reported.
But fires don’t only threaten lives, homes, and livelihoods in their direct paths. They also contribute to worsening air quality, sending billowing smoke full of particulate matter across the country. This can increase hospital visits for respiratory illness and drive up asthma rates.
According to a study that analyzed historic data, air quality in cities 50 to 100 miles from fire can be five to 15 times worse than normal. The Center for Disease Control found that in 2007, six hospitals near sustained wildfires in Southern California saw a 25 percent increase in respiratory syndrome diagnosis and a 50 percent increase in asthma diagnoses.
“These cascading impacts are the things that keep me up at night,” Jason Funk, a senior climate scientist for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress earlier this year. “We haven’t been looking at them so much.”
The state of emergency order will make it easier for evacuees to process paperwork, such as replacing destroyed birth certificates. It will also expedite clean-up processes.