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California Fire Danger Continues to Worsen, Experts Say


California Fire Danger Continues to Worsen, Experts Say

As California is living through the most dangerous time of the year for wildfires due to dry and windy conditions, experts say a trio of factors make America’s most populous state more at-risk than ever.

Despite several recent wildfires outside of San Francisco and Los Angeles, there have been no significantly deadly and destructive blazes so far in 2019. Nonetheless, the long-term trend in the Golden State is toward bigger, faster-moving and more destructive wildfires, due to a combination of overgrown forests creating more fuel, climate change that causes higher temperatures and less snow, and housing construction in fire-prone areas.

“There’s no simple problem and no one simple answer,” said

Max Moritz,

statewide fire specialist based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s all of these things mixed together.”

The Anatomy of a Fire

Whether a fire spreads, and how quickly, depends on a host of factors

A fire starts, creating embers, which the heat and energy pull up into the plume.

Winds grab the embers and can whip them miles away, pushing them past

the fire’s perimeter and sparking additional spot fires.

Embers can travel up to several miles, depending on the conditions. Its size affects burnout time

Homes are vulnerable to embers where they can lodge themselves in eaves and other crevices

Fires can produce embers

from all kinds of vegetation like leaves, pine needles, small twigs

and pieces of bark.

In Northern California, where some of the biggest, most destructive fires have happened, native California hardwood trees cast dangerous embers moderate distances

California’s Mediterranean climate has long been conducive to fire. Its forests dry out every summer and become fuel for when seasonal high winds roar this time of year, creating firestorms when ignited. But in just the last decade, the state has recorded 10 of its most destructive fires, seven of its largest and five of its deadliest.

California’s fire season in the Sierra Nevada mountains is now nearly 75 days longer than it was four decades ago, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

A study published earlier this year by professors from schools including the University of California, Los Angeles found the annual area burned in the state quintupled between 1972 and 2018. The expansion came at the same time warm weather temperatures rose almost three degrees Fahrenheit, melting mountain snowpacks earlier. That results in soil losing moisture faster, which causes trees and brush to dry up, making them more susceptible to burning, experts say.

“Changing climates makes these things more frequent, expands the timing you can get these events,” said

Mark Finney,

research forester for the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont.

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Fires are only dangerous, however, when they come close to communities where people live and work.

About 11 million Californians, roughly a fourth of the state’s population, live in what foresters call the “wildland-urban interface,” close to highly vegetated areas that easily burn, according to a report last year by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

People who live in densely built urban areas further from wilderness face a far lower risk of wildfires.

Recent wildfires have in many cases followed the same paths as those of historic blazes, but with one big difference: more homes in the way. In Napa County, a 1981 wildfire scorched 23,000 acres, destroying 65 homes and other buildings. Another fire raced through Napa in 2017, blackening 51,624 acres and destroying 781 structures in an area that had since been significantly more developed.

“It almost seems like now that, unless you are up in a wilderness area, you can’t have a fire start that doesn’t soon become a threat to one house or several houses,” said

Kim Christensen,

deputy assistant director of operations for the U.S. Forest Service.

The Maria Fire burned on a hillside as it expanded up to 8,000 acres near Somis, Calif., on Friday.


David McNew/Getty Images

The more California’s population has grown, the more likely authorities are to put out fires as soon as possible after they start, a process settlers began more than a century ago, according to Mr. Finney. In the past, Native American tribes often set fires to manage the land for farming and other purposes.

State and federal foresters have ramped up the use of controlled burns in recent years and also increased logging to help thin trees that could burn. But experts say it has yet to make a serious dent in the problem.

Having fewer large fires in wilderness areas close to where people live leads to a buildup in trees and brush. That includes highly combustible chaparral found in coastal areas like the Sonoma County wine country, where the 78,000 acre Kincade Fire is currently burning, said

Scott Stephens,

professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Chaparral burns with high intensity no matter what happens, and some of that area has expanded due to fire suppression,” Mr. Stephens said.

The chaparral can create embers that pose a serious danger of igniting more blazes, particularly when dry, warm winds from the desert blow them a great distance.

Mitigating climate change is likely a decadeslong project, if it can be done at all, while changing housing development so people live farther from the fire-prone areas and blazes can be allowed to burn longer without threatening homes has proven a difficult political challenge.

“The deleterious synergies between increasingly severe fire behavior, caused in part by climate change, and housing development in fire-prone landscapes make this look like a losing battle,” said

Wally Covington,

director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

Fire ravaged the Signorello Estate winery in 2017 in Napa, Calif.



Write to Jim Carlton at

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