New California Wildfire Season Triggers Reflection, Preparation

By Ilene Schneider
Ilene Schneider
Ilene Schneider
September 23, 2019 Updated: September 23, 2019

With California’s wildfire season in full swing, the state is preparing for the worst while reflecting on recent disasters.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), in 2017 and 2018, California experienced the “deadliest and most destructive wildfires in its history.” Those fires killed more than 100 people, destroyed tens of thousands of structures, and burned nearly 2 million acres.

At least 11 wildfires were raging in California as of this writing. CalFire has already fought dozens of fires throughout the state during August and September.

September and October, which often are hot and windy, are historically the worst months for fire in the state, according to Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director at CalFire. After the summer months, winds start to pick up and the vegetation is at its driest.

“This is the most destructive season when fires occur,” Berlant told The Epoch Times. “The winds fan large and destructive fires, especially in certain areas.”

CalFire classifies more than 25 million acres of California land as being under very high or extreme fire threat, and the development of new homes near wilderness areas has increased the threat significantly, placing more people and property at risk than in preceding decades. Past years of drought have also created “an unprecedented buildup of dry vegetation and extreme winds,” CalFire said.

“While wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year,” according to CalFire. “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 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.”

“The causes of fires change year by year,” explained Berlant. “The chief causes are equipment use, utility power lines, and debris burning. Sometimes, people are trying to do the right thing by cleaning up their yards, but they may not take the right precautions or be cognizant of weather conditions that can cause fires.”

Berlant estimated that 95 percent of fires are caused by activity or infrastructure, meaning that they are preventable. Less than 5 percent of fires are caused by lightning strikes, meaning that most fires are the result of carelessness or neglect, he said.

People can take precautions to prevent fires, according to Berlant. “A simple spark can ignite into a wildfire, so just be extra cautious. For example, if cutting weeds, do it early in the morning when there is less fire danger. If pulling over from a highway to make a phone call, be aware that the dry grass along the side of the road can ignite from vehicle exhaust. Chains dragging along the road can shoot off sparks, so fasten them properly.”

CalFire is currently developing an improved state map that combines detailed data about weather, topography, vegetation, and the placement of roads and homes. It details fire hazard security zones based on a number of consistent factors, such as fuel, slope, topography, and fire weather.

The map incorporates new technology that gives a more detailed view of small, isolated wind events. The more accurate model creates a more up-to-date, concise view of an area, providing a more accurate look at different zones in real time.

“The overall factors causing fires are the same, but the new technology is refining the models for hazard severity zones,” Berlant said.

Cautiously optimistic about the new fire season, Berlant added that recent aid from the state has brought 400 seasonal firefighters, 13 new engines and crews to run them, and a new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk helicopter, the first of 12 replacement firefighting helicopters.

California also still has snowpack from last winter, and upper elevations haven’t dried out, while fuel-reduction projects to clear brush and dead trees are ongoing. Lightning and other hazards can still spark fires in the new growth from late winter rains, but people can do their part to avoid activities that cause the fires to spread, Berlant added.

Ilene Schneider
Ilene Schneider