More Than 20,000 Evacuated as California Spring Turns to Summer of Fire
Written by Ari Phillips
Springtime in California. Birds chirping, flowers blooming. And this year wildfires raging, winds howling, and heat pounding.
In Southern California, almost a dozen fires sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing their homes as exceptionally strong Santa Ana winds from the east, reaching close to 90 mph, pushed back the normal cool coastal breezes blowing in — priming already tinderbox-like fire conditions. More than 20,000 evacuation notices have been issued.
A fire in San Diego County Wednesday forced the partial evacuation of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, currently undergoing decommissioning with significant nuclear waste stored on site. According to CAL FIRE spokesman Daniel Berlant, this year the state’s department of forestry and fire protection has responded to more than 1,350 wildfires, with the average for this time of year being 700.
A little farther north around Los Angeles, Thursday is forecast to bring triple-digit heat that could exceed the 99-degree daily record. And farther north along the coast, several places including San Francisco, Mountain View and Monterey all set or tied heat records. Mashable reported Wednesday that, according to the National Weather Service, so far two days this May in San Diego have ranked among the top eight hottest May days on record dating back to 1896.
“Research has shown that in Los Angeles we can expect to see a temperature increase on average of three to four degrees over the next couple decades,” Heather Kachel from Climate Resolve in Los Angeles, a non-profit addressing the challenges of climate change, told ThinkProgress. “This means a doubling or tripling of extreme heat days over 95 degrees.”
Kachel said the fire-breathing Santa Ana winds are also likely to intensify due to climate change. “To the chagrin of firefighters and residents, some preliminary findings show that the Santa Ana wind season is going to extend more frequently into spring and summer from fall and winter. Fire season is no longer just July, August, September, but will start much earlier in the year and extend into fall as well.”
As of Tuesday, the latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows 100 percent of California being abnormally dry, with 25 percent in the highest category of exceptional drought.
— Fred Bentler (@Bentler) May 15, 2014
In the midst of this fire, heat and drought, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency this week to help free up resources for those on the front lines and others experiencing the worst impacts.
Earlier this year, Gov. Brown issued a state of emergency declaration to address the crippling drought consuming the state. 2013 was California’s driest on record dating back over 120 years. On April 1, the typical seasonal snowpack peak for the Sierra mountains lining interior California was a meager 32 percent of average. An analysis by The Weather Channel found that the state’s 20 largest wildfires on record dating to 1932 have all occurred from June through October. But with the essential absence of a wet season, this year could be the new normal in the establishment of the onset of an earlier fire season across the state.
“It is pretty amazing to see these in May,” San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar told NBC News of the fires. “We certainly have seen climate change and the impact of climate change … We live in a fire-prone environment here, but when things are this dry, and the humidity is this low, and the winds are blowing as we see here today, we’re very, very concerned.”
As ClimateProgress’ Joe Romm reported earlier this year, scientists have been linking hotter and drier conditions across California to climate change for over a decade. In a letter to the New York Times in March, three drought experts wrote that the California drought “has certainly been exacerbated by climate change for one simple reason:”
Temperatures in California are now higher today, as they are globally. This alone increases water demand by crops and ecosystems, accelerates snowpack loss, and worsens evaporation from reservoirs. There are other complicating effects, but the influence of higher temperatures on drought is already real and cannot be ignored.
We are now unambiguously altering the climate, threatening water supplies for human and natural systems. This is but one example of how even today we are paying the cost of unavoidable climate changes.
There is little ambiguity that it will be a costly summer as California enters its official hot, dry season.
This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress
Photo Credit: M.R Fathie via Twitter