Wildfire rips through California’s windy Cajon Pass

Under potentially ‘new normal’ fire conditions, 80,000 people have been evacuated.

  • Firefighters watch the Blue Cut wildfire burning near Cajon Pass, north of San Bernardino, California. The fire forced the evacuation of more than 82,000 people on August 16.

    Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images
 

Update August 19: As of Friday morning, the Blue Cut fire was reported 26 percent contained, and had spread to 37,000 acres. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, some 80,000 people had been reported evacuated from their homes in Cajon Pass, California, as a result of a wildfire that started Tuesday and has burned 31,600 acres. The Southern California blaze comes during the state’s fifth year of drought, which has parched landscapes and made them particularly prone to wildfire.  

By the first week of June, almost 28,000 acres had burned in California since the beginning of the year — more than double the area in the same time period of 2015.  In addition to the prolonged drought, part of the reason for the intense fire season in California is that the state saw higher-than-normal rainfall in the winter and spring, which then dried up over the summer and created a build-up of wildfire fuel.  

The National Interagency Fire Center says much of coastal California, including San Bernardino County, where the Blue Cut Fire ignited, and the Central Valley will continue to see above-normal fire potential through September or even as late as November. The Great Basin ecosystem, which includes parts of Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, is expected to return to more normal fire potential by October.   

In recent years, Western states have seen longer fire seasons than previously recorded, establishing what some experts call a “new normal.” University of Idaho fire science professor Crystal Kolden recently told High Country News that regional fire seasons between the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest have begun to overlap.

Richard Halsey, a fire ecologist with the California Chaparral Institute, says the chaparral ecoregion of Southern California, where Blue Cut is raging, naturally sees high-intensity fires return every 30 to 150 years, but the increasing frequency of fires is of great concern. Cajon Pass is “arguably one of the most vulnerable spots in Southern California, if not the entire state in terms of crippling the economy,” Halsey told HCN on Wednesday. “It has a major highway route; and not just that, but rails go through, pipelines, wires. It’s huge.”

The terrain of the Cajon Pass area is essentially a geographic wind tunnel that fosters increased wind speeds and can spread fire particularly quickly. As of Thursday morning, firefighting agencies had reportedly contained 4 percent of the fire. 

At the time of publication, no deaths had been reported. On Tuesday, the federal Incident Information System reported the cause of the fire was unknown.

This story was updated with new information Thursday morning. Tay Wiles is the deputy editor - digital of High Country News and is based in Paonia, Colorado.