The West’s ‘new normal’: Another long season of volatile wildfires

In California and across the region, drought and heat makes for big blazes.

 

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.

The Erskine Fire in Central California.
USDA

Looking at the West as a whole, this fire season is similar to the last couple of years – longer, hotter, and harder to control – except in the Pacific Northwest, where there’s been a near-average wet, cool summer. According to a recent report from the National Interagency Fire Center, that delays the region’s greatest fire risk until later in the season. However, it has been extremely dry and hot in the Great Basin and Rockies, leading to more fire starts. Those areas should return to normal fire risk by September. The high fire potential in California will continue during the season’s peak this month and through November, though, perhaps even until the first snowfall.

Typically, when the Pacific Northwest is particularly active with wildfire, the Southwest is less so, and vice versa, Kolden says, due to large-scale climate dynamics. But because of climate change in the last five to 10 years, regional wildfire seasons now often overlap. Fires are also burning a wider range of ecosystems than in the past, Kolden says. The lower-elevation sagebrush steppe is fueling fires just as much as high-elevation ponderosa forests, Southern California’s chaparral, and Idaho's rangelands – and often, all these ecosystems are experiencing fires at the same time. “Climate change is starting to take over,” says Kolden, “so there’s a higher probability and incidence of fires all over the West every single year.”

The map below, by Climate Central, tracks the current active wildfires across the country.

Two of the largest are the Soberanes Fire in California, which has burned over 70,000 acres and is only about halfway contained; and the Pioneer Fire near Boise, which has burned over 68,000 acres and is about one-third of the way contained. The NIFC considers both these fires its top priority because they’re proving hard to contain and near highly-populated areas. As peak fire seasons stretch and overlap, firefighting resources are getting stretched thinner. The Pioneer Fire, for example, currently has about 1,500 firefighters working on it, while the Soberanes has a record-breaking 4,800, including 150 National Guard members.

It’s still unclear what caused the Pioneer Fire, but an illegal campfire ignited the Soberanes blaze, and faulty hot tub wiring caused the Valley Fire. A growing percentage of wildfires are started by humans, says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, particularly in Southern California where the population in fire-danger areas is increasing exponentially. That’s part of the reason that, even though that area’s fires aren’t necessarily more severe than usual, this year’s have resulted in more homes lost and a high fatality rate in California.

By this point, Stephens says, it’s clear that Western communities and federal agencies need to be more proactive at planning for fire and drought when building homes and structures and managing land. According to his research, we should be restoring forests by thinning and using prescribed burns at five to 10 times the rate we are now. “If we don’t start to change the trajectory of forest conditions in the Western U.S., we’re literally going to be running out of options,” he says. “The big fires will continue to come.”

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.