Nov 9, 2018 - Energy & Environment

Historic California wildfires destroy towns, turn deadly

Aerial view of wildfire in paradise, california

The Camp Fire burning through the town of Paradise, Calif., as seen from space on Nov. 8, 2018. Photo: NASA

At least 3 major wildfires are blazing across California, killing citizens trapped by their rapid spread and threatening iconic towns like Malibu. The town of Paradise, home to about 30,000, has been almost completely destroyed, according to Cal Fire.

The big picture: "With fires also burning in Southern California, state officials put the total number of people forced from their homes at 157,000," the AP reports.

  • "[T]he blaze near the town of Paradise had grown to nearly 110 square miles... 'There was really no firefight involved... These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday,'" said an official with California Forestry and Fire Protection. [AP]
  • Smoke from this fire, known as the Camp Fire, was swept by the winds hundreds of miles out to sea, blanketing the San Francisco Bay area in the process.
  • "The first blaze, dubbed the Hill Fire, reduced in size Friday as it settled into the footprint of a 2013 fire, officials said." [Washington Post]
  • "Authorities said they have no containment of the Woolsey fire, which comes as strong Santa Ana winds blow through the region." [LA Times]

Between the lines: California has had one of its warmest and driest six month periods on record since 1895 (May through October), according to NOAA. Much of the state has not seen measurable rain in months, and vegetation moisture levels are near all-time lows. 

Longer-term climate change and population growth are also combining to cause increased wildfire risk in California, including in highly populated areas.

  • Santa Ana wind events, which feature strong, desiccating offshore winds that can accelerate through mountain passes at speeds upwards of 70 miles per hour, are notorious for resulting in fast-spreading wildfires in Southern California in particular. 

The bottom line: We're witnessing yet more wildfire disasters in a state that is likely to see this problem grow worse with time, as climate change leads to more erratic rainy seasons and hotter, drier and more extended dry seasons. Extreme wildfire behavior, including massive fire tornadoes and quickly moving fire lines, has been a hallmark of some of the deadliest fires the state has seen during the past few years.

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