As California launches into a dry summer with wildfires raging in both northern and southern California, David Orth wonders if we’re not seeing the start of something far more ominous.
“It’s possible the whole country could have a bad fire season,” said Orth, deputy chief of the Berkeley Fire Department. Even worse, it could last all year long.
“Whether it’s just incidental to current conditions or something bigger that is tied to global warming is the question,” he said.
And current thinking is that global warming may be ushering in an era where fires don’t simply appear in cycles in different regions of the country but become a constant menace for all parts of the country.
Typically, Orth said, fires appear in different parts of the country according to a seasonal cycle, starting with California’s wildland and forest fires in summer and fall, then moving into Arizona and the states of the Southwest.
“Texas had big range fires last winter,” he said, the season when heavy fires typically hit the region.
The cycle then moves to the East Coast, where spring fires are the norm, and then begins to cycle back west, picking up Alaska along the way before the cycle begins anew.
“All of that happened this year, but the thing is, they’re still happening. There are still significant fires in Florida and Georgia, and in the Southwest and farther north,” he said.
Southern California is suffering a prolonged drought, one of the worst in recorded history, and while firefighters are battling blazes there, other crews have been struggling to contain the 3,100-acre Angora fire at Lake Tahoe which had consumed nearly 230 homes by Thursday morning.
“The fact that there is a fire at Tahoe this time of year is really kind of ominous,” said Ken Blonski, chief of the East Bay Regional Park District Fire Department.
The local fire season usually begins about the first of the month, but this year the start was announced in May, which Orth called a troubling indicator of possible things to come.
Usually the California fire cycle begins with lowland grass fires, then move into grass/oak woodlands and only later moves up into the pine forest at the higher elevations,” Blonski said. “But this year the snow pack was very low and it’s already dry at the higher elevations. That we have a true forest fire this time of year is not a good omen.”
Statewide, Orth said, “we can handle one or two major fires at the same time. It’s the three or four fires at once that hurt,” a worry that consumes the thoughts of California firefighters.
“One of the problems is that when it’s bad here, it’s usually bad all over,” said Blonski.
And when it is bad here, the conditions that make one fire possible usually result in a second blaze, he said.
One possible sign of things to come is the 35-acre hillside blaze that forced the evacuation of homes in an upscale San Rafael neighborhood Wednesday night.
“The bottom line is that it was cool, the moisture content was up and the fog was closing in, and there was only the typical prevailing wind. It wasn’t dry and it wasn’t real windy,” said Orth.
“It’s important to remember that the fires don’t always happen on hot, dry windy days—and to go over 30 acres is very significant.”
But windy days are the persistent nightmare everywhere along the California coast.
“It’s when the east winds and north winds are blowing that you have the real problems,” said Blonski, when the gusts are blowing from off the heated landscape toward the cooler Pacific.
“They call them Mono winds, Santa Ana winds, Devil winds, the offshore winds,” he said
Typically their effects are worst in the autumn, when the landscape is full of dying and dead vegetation seared by the hot, dry winds.
Blonski and Orth said that experience with past fires has produced a well-coordinated system for fighting fires in the Berkeley and Oakland hills.
“The fire we had recently on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel was a good example. All of the agencies jumped on it right away.”
Local firefighting agencies just completed a two-day training exercise at Camp Parks, with over 200 pieces of firefighting equipment and their crews converging from around the bay.
Meanwhile, the state Office of Emergency Services (OES) is maintaining its readiness, Blonski said.
Through mutual-aid agreements and coordination of the OES, Blonski said, major outbreaks can be met with firefighting forces summoned from across the state.
In addition to the possible effects of global warming, another and often more immediate concern is the intrusion of housing into areas that abut rich sources of fire fuel.
“If you had a fire in the Berkeley and Oakland Hills a hundred years ago, you probably wouldn’t have more than a few fence posts destroyed. But not now. So to some extent the dangers come from the fact that more and more people are building where they wouldn’t have built in the past,” said Blonski.
“While some people accept the danger and just hope they won’t get burned out in their lifetimes, others seem to be in denial,” he said.
But if California history teaches anything, it’s that the fires will come.