Why Was Southern California’s ‘Megafire’ So Intense?

If you’ve ever hiked in Southern California, you may remember a distinctive smell: pungent and earthy, slightly sharp. The air shimmers with heat, as your feet kick up dry dust. This region is hot and dry — and in the early days of December, it went up like a tinderbox, in the first winter “megafire” in the state’s modern history.

The story of where and how these fires emerged, and why they grew so quickly, provides some ominous warnings for our future.

As with the Northern California wildfires that occupied headlines in October, multiple blazes flared up simultaneously in Southern California, which stretched firefighting resources very thin. The Thomas, Lilac, Creek, Rye, and Skirball fires all required tremendous resource dedication. And, at times, the ferocity of the fires made it difficult to do more than try to hold the line.

Unlike the October fires, however, officials were less reticent about pushing out evacuation orders, with a focus on getting people out safely and in an orderly fashion. This effort undoubtedly saved lives and made these fires far less fatal, though they were still extremely costly to fight and destroyed hundreds of structures. The wildfires also killed a number of racehorses at a facility that wasn’t equipped to evacuate ahead of the fast-moving flames.

Southern California is no stranger to fires — here are a few of the most notable:

  • the 2003 Cedar Fire, one of the most destructive in the state’s modern history
  • the 2007 Zaca Fire in Santa Barbara
  • the 1932 Matilija Fire in Ventura
  • the 2009 Station Fire in Los Angeles
  • the 1970 Laguna Fire in San Diego
  • the 1933 Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles
  • the 1961 Bel Aire Fire in Los Angeles

Most residents of this region are familiar with the smell of smoke during wildfire season — and for some, this wasn’t their first time evacuating.

The area is fire-prone not just because it’s hot and dry, but also because of its native vegetation. Chaparral, a tough, evergreen plant, also happens to be highly flammable — especially when fire suppression policies limit opportunities for small, minimally destructive fires that clear out undergrowth without getting dangerously hot.

Plus, Southern California has to cope with warm and fierce Santa Ana winds, which drive fire before them as they blow out to sea from the inland desert. These winds dry out vegetation and feed flames. At times, the gusts created conditions so dangerous that firefighters couldn’t even work.

2017 has been a year of strange weather and devastating natural disasters – and that’s no coincidence. Evidence suggests climate change may have played a role in California’s drought and the shift in the jetstream that enabled ferocious winds.

Already fire-prone regions of California are facing even greater danger in coming years, which should raise some important questions during the rebuilding process: Should we continue to construct housing on winding canyon roads in the midst of highly flammable plants? Are there better ways to live in harmony with the natural world?

For those living in places that haven’t experienced recent natural disasters, hopefully these events will act as a wakeup call. There’s no better time to talk about emergency planning for yourself and your pets, and to make sure you’re well supplied for a disaster. Talk to public safety officials about Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, and if it’s not available in your area, consider requesting it: In a disaster, your friends and neighbors can help each other with training designed to bridge the gap between an initial incident and the arrival of emergency services.

Photo credit: Doc Searls

54 comments

Marie W
Marie Wabout a month ago

thanks for sharing

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Mike R
Mike R6 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R6 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R6 months ago

Thanks

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Sarah Grayce P
Sarah Grayce P7 months ago

These fires are scary.

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson7 months ago

climate change is a reality.

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson7 months ago

climate change is a reality.

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Val M
ValBusy M7 months ago

The Thomas fire is still burning!

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Christine Stewart
Christine Stewart7 months ago

such a sad situation

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Cathy B
Cathy B7 months ago

Thank you.

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