California officials offer bleak outlook for 2022 fire season

Southern California faces a potentially treacherous wildfire season this year as climate change, drought and extreme heat conspire to cook vegetation and prepare the landscape to burn, officials say.

Standing in the scorching sun at the start of a triple-digit heat wave, firefighters from various states, counties and federal agencies gathered in Los Angeles on Thursday to warn residents of current conditions and what the coming months could book.

“We know the drought is here. We know that fuels are flammable. We now know that with water restrictions, the vegetation around our homes becomes flammable,” said Ventura County Fire Department Chief Dustin Gardner. “So we know the threat is there, and we know the threat is real.”

In recent years, authorities have been sounding the alarm about changing conditions in the state, with wildfires in the West getting hotter, faster and harder to fight due to the increase heat and dryness. Last year, more than 2.5 million acres burned in California, including the 960,000-acre Dixie Fire, the second-largest blaze on record in the state.

Firefighters clear combustible materials at the head of the Dixie Fire near Janesville, California in August.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

This year, fuel moisture levels – or the amount of water in vegetation – are at least four months ahead of what they should be in drought terms, officials said. In some cases, the fuels are 40% drier than that same day in 2016, which was, at the time, among the driest on record.

“We’ve seen it year after year for the past few years,” Gardner said. “We’re getting hotter, drier, faster.”

The warning comes as much of California heads into a dangerous heat wave, with temperatures expected to hit 106 degrees in Sacramento on Friday and 117 in Borrego Springs on Saturday. Last year, a similar heat wave in June helped kick off the fire season in Northern California with the Sugar and Beckwourth Complex fires.

After the driest months of January, February and March on record, nearly all of California is classified as severe, extreme or exceptional drought, according to US Drought Monitor.

Kristina Dahl, senior climatologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the confluence of hazards is turning summer into “hazard season” in the United States.

“What we see is that when the snowpack gets very low in the spring, we tend to have a bit more fire activity in the following wildfire season,” she said. declared. “And we also know that when it’s unusually hot, we’re more likely to see drier conditions because the heat can exacerbate drought conditions and make them worse.”

Increased fire activity also means an increased likelihood of blazes where people live, Dahl said, particularly as more people move into the area known as the interface between nature and the city.

Already this year, more than 2,000 fires have burned about 11,000 acres in the state, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In May, the devastating Coastal Fire in Orange County destroyed about 20 homes.

The fact that this fire broke out on a “normal day” only illustrates the growing risk in the area, said Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy.

“It wasn’t a Santa Ana day, the humidity was over 70%, the temperatures were in the mid-70s,” he said. “The big difference is the fuels… This vegetation was dry.”

Fennessy said conditions will likely only get worse as the state heads into what is typically the hottest and driest part of the year.

“It’s climate change,” he says. “I’m not a scientist, but I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen fire spread the way it does. I’ve never seen what we’re going through today.

Fire chiefs on Thursday stressed the need for public cooperation ahead of summer, particularly with proactive measures such as clearing brush or clearing flammable materials around homes to help create a defensible space.

“It’s that lower vegetation that we want to clear because that’s what’s going to spread a wildfire,” said Capt. Erik Scott of the Los Angeles Fire Department. “It’s what we often call a fire ladder: it starts at the ground, it starts to spread over these trees, especially through dry or dead vegetation, and then it gets caught by the winds, and this is where the embers spread.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby speaks during a press conference.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby speaks during a press conference at La Cañada Flintridge on Thursday about the outlook for the 2022 fire season. The County Fire Authority Chief Orange, Brian Fennessy, left, and Capt. Erik Scott of the Los Angeles Fire Department look on.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby said agencies are “also looking at fire science” to re-evaluate vegetation guidelines and are working to increase firefighting personnel. fires, especially in wind-prone areas where fires can get out of control quickly.

Additionally, area fire departments are pursuing local and statewide fuel mitigation projects, Osby said, including the use of goats to maintain fire-prone vegetation as well as mechanical thinning and potentially controlled burns.

Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties are also securing additional firefighting helicopters on standby to help drop water and flame retardant, he said.

But individual agencies often fall short of the new breed of wildfires, officials said.

“These large wildfires are so large, so destructive, that no fire department can handle them alone, so the call for mutual aid is literally going out daily,” said Chief Brian Marshall. California Governor’s Fire and Rescue Department. Office of Emergency Services. In the last fiscal year, the state’s wildfire suppression costs soared past $1.1 billion.

Osby said current conditions, including drought, will undoubtedly make it more difficult to fight the fires this year. Crews have pre-identified water sources in Los Angeles County where aircrew can fill their tanks, he said, and they will also rely heavily on retarder and foam.

Dahl, the scientist, said the climate trends driving the fires are expected to continue to varying degrees, depending on how quickly we can reduce heat-trapping emissions from fossil fuels. .

“The more efficiently we can reduce these emissions and the faster we can reduce these emissions, the less we will see the growth of wildfires in the state,” she said.

But when it comes to the 2022 season in Southern California, officials have made it clear that the writing is on the wall.

“Given the fuel conditions, the fire conditions that we’re talking about here, I foresee four, five, six very difficult months ahead of us,” Fennessy said.

Los Angeles Times

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