Monday, August 22, 2016

The West's "New Normal": Another Long Season of Volatile Wildfires

From:  Truth Out

Sunday, 21 August 2016 00:00

This story was originally published on August 13, 2016 at High Country News (hcn.org).
The morning of July 23, the city of Los Angeles was covered in a dusting of ash. An apocalyptic haze muted the sun, and the sky was an eerie, unnatural pink. Just a day before, a wildfire had broken out on private land 30 miles northwest, near Santa Clarita. Within 24 hours, the Sand Fire scorched 20,000 acres, and in a week, it burned another 21,000 acres. At least 10,000 people had to evacuate before it was contained by early August.

The most volatile fire activity in the West this year has occurred in Central and Southern California -- from Big Sur to Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Bernardino -- causing the closure of the Pacific Coast Highway, the destruction of hundreds of homes, and the death of at least six people. According to experts, these blazes -- along with the 85 large fires currently burning across the country, many in the West -- offer a glimpse into the West's "new normal" wildfire season that has been intensified by climate change in recent years. Warmer temperatures, less snowfall and increased drought mean that fire season begins earlier in April and lasts longer, until November or December.

Last winter, California breathed a sigh of relief during El Niño, expecting it to drench the parched landscape after four years of drought. Northern California got more rain and remains relatively wet, but El Niño didn't deliver enough to prevent fires in the southern part of the state. "It's the legacy effect of the long-term drought: these large, volatile, fast-moving wildfires in California," says Crystal Kolden, fire science professor at the University of Idaho. By the first week of June, firefighters in the state had already tackled over 1,500 fires that burned almost 28,000 acres -- twice as many acres burned as in the first half of 2015.  MORE