'Extremely critical' fire danger: Wildfires erupt in California

A home burns as the Kincade Fire moves through the area Thursday in Geyserville, Calif. Fueled by high winds, the Kincade Fire burned over 7,000 acres in a matter of hours and has prompted evacuations in area. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Rapidly spreading wildfires have erupted amid “extremely critical” fire danger in parts of California, with conditions likely to escalate risks to Southern California, including the Los Angeles area, through today.

In northern California, the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, about 75 miles north of San Francisco, rapidly expanded in size early Thursday, torching 10,000 acres just four hours after it was first reported. A red-flag warning was in effect for much of the San Francisco Bay area through 4 p.m. Thursday, as high offshore winds of up to 60 mph in some locations, combined with extremely dry air, create ideal conditions for rapidly spreading wildfires. The offshore winds in Northern California were forecast to slacken as the day goes on, potentially giving firefighters a window to make gains on that blaze and any others that erupt during the day.

However, relative humidity is not expected to recover much overnight, which could make wildfires more difficult to contain.

The wildfire threat in southern California ramped up throughout the day Thursday, with the National Weather Service forecast office in Los Angeles warning of “an environment ripe for large and dangerous fire growth, especially Thursday and Friday.” Forecasters are warning of “extreme fire behavior” for any blazes that erupt through today.

“This has all the ingredients of a dangerous fire weather scenario,” wrote the office, calling it “similar to or worse than the recent Oct. 10-11 event that produced the Saddleridge Fire.” They urged extreme caution, mentioning that actions as simple as “dragging towing chains” can create the sparks that metastasize into a wildfire.

The Kincade Fire, which remains at 0% contained, broke out around 12:30 a.m. Thursday in Sonoma County. It quickly swallowed surrounding areas in flames, expanding at an average rate of a football field every two seconds early Thursday.

Evacuations have been ordered in parts of Sonoma County, including the community of Geyserville.

Meanwhile, California’s electrical providers have instituted the second round of “public safety power shutoffs” in two weeks to reduce the risk of sparking a blaze when dangerous fire weather is present. Pacific Gas and Electric cut service to more than 182,000 customers, beginning Wednesday in the Sierra foothills and North Bay and early Thursday in San Mateo and Kern counties.

California’s preemptive power cuts are a new way of adapting to an environment that scientists say is more conducive to large wildfires and longer fire seasons. This is largely due to a combination of climate change and land use shifts.

The ongoing wildfires come on the heels of the devastating 2017 and 2018 California fire seasons, which featured the largest, most destructive, and deadliest blazes on record. The Camp Fire, for example, occurred nearly one year ago, killing 88 and destroying much of the town of Paradise. An investigation concluded that the fire began from a spark generated by a Pacific Gas & Electric power line.

It’s part of a clear pattern toward larger, more frequent and destructive blazes. And, according to CalFire, “climate change is considered a key driver of this trend.” Population growth and the increase in homes and businesses located near lands that typically burn, known as the wildland-urban interface, are also escalating the risk of and damage from wildfires in the Golden State.

“Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire,” the agency wrote. “The length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state.”

Partly because of its experience with wildfires, California has established the most ambitious climate policy targets in the country, but the consequences of global warming are already here, and increasingly obvious.

One of the most robust conclusions of climate change research is that wildfires are becoming increasingly frequent and severe in large parts of the American West as the climate warms, particularly in California. This is taking place as summers become hotter and drier and precipitation becomes more variable in the winter, with jarring shifts from drought to flood and back again becoming the norm.

For example, the National Climate Assessment, an authoritative report published by the Trump administration in 2017, showed that the cumulative forest area burned by wildfires in the Southwest between 1984 and 2015 doubled because of climate-change-related factors.

In an indication that an uptick in large wildfires is already occurring in California, 15 of the top 20 largest wildfires in state history have occurred since the year 2000.

Computer model projections show huge increases in wildfire frequency and size in California as well as other parts of the Southwest if greenhouse gas emissions continue largely unabated.


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