California Officials offer grim outlook for 2022 fire season

Southern California is facing a potentially dangerous wildfire season this year, as climate change, drought and extreme heat conspire to burn vegetation and landscape the forest, officials say. know.

Standing under the blazing sun at the start of the triple-digit heat wave, fire officials from various state, county and federal agencies gathered in Los Angeles on Thursday to warn residents about the dangers of the heat. current situation and what may happen in the coming months.

“We know the drought is here. We know the fuel is flammable. We know now, with water restrictions, that the vegetation around our homes is becoming flammable,” said Dustin Gardner, Ventura County Fire Department Superintendent. “So we know the threat is here, and we know the threat is real.”

Officials have warned in recent years of a changing state of affairs, with wildfires across the West growing hotter, faster and harder to extinguish as they grow hotter and drier. Last year, more than 2.5 million acres burned in California — including the 960,000-acre Dixie Fire, the state’s second-largest fire on record.

Firefighters clear combustible material at the top of the Dixie fire near Janesville in August 2021.

Firefighters clear combustible material at the top of the Dixie Fire near Janesville, California, in August.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

This year, the fuel moisture content – or the amount of water in the vegetation – is at least four months higher than it should be, officials say. In some cases, the fuel was 40% drier than it was on this same day in 2016, which at the time was among the driest fuels they had ever seen.

“We’re seeing it year after year in the last few years,” Gardner said. “We’re getting hotter, drier, faster.”

The warning comes as much of California is falling into a dangerous heatwave, with temperatures predicted to soar as high as 106 degrees in Sacramento on Friday and 117 degrees in Borrego Springs on Saturday. Last year, a similar heatwave in June helped kick off the Northern California fire season with the Sugar and Beckwourth Complex fires.

After the driest January, February, and March ever, nearly all of California is classified as a severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.

Kristina Dahl, principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says a confluence of hazards is turning summer into a “danger season” in the US

“What we’ve found is when the snowfall is very low in the spring, we tend to have a bit more fire activity the next bushfire season,” she said. “And we also know that when it’s exceptionally warm, we’re more likely to see drier conditions because heat can exacerbate arid conditions and make them worse.”

Increased fire activity also means an increased likelihood of fires where people live, Dahl said, especially as more people move into the area known as the urban wasteland interface. .

This year, more than 2,000 fires have burned about 11,000 acres of land in the state, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In May, the devastating Coastal Fire in Orange County destroyed an estimated 20 homes.

The blaze burning on a “normal day” only demonstrates the growing danger for the area, said Brian Fennessy, Orange County Fire Department Superintendent.

“It wasn’t a day in Santa Ana, over 70 percent humidity, mid-70s temperatures,” he said. “The big difference is the fuel… That vegetation is dried. ”

Fennessy said conditions will likely only get worse as the state focuses on what is typically the hottest, driest year of the year.

“It’s climate change,” he said. “I’m not a scientist, but I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen fire spread like it does now. I have never seen what we are going through today.”

Fire chiefs on Thursday emphasized the need for community cooperation as summer moves into the summer, especially when it comes to proactive measures like brush cleans or removal of objects. flammable materials around the house to help create a defensive space.

“It’s the lower vegetation that we want to clear because that’s what’s going to spread wildfires,” said Captain Erik Scott of the Los Angeles Fire Department. said. “That’s what we usually call the fire ladder: It’ll start on the ground, start spreading those trees, especially through dry or dead vegetation, and then it’ll get carried away by the wind, and that’s where the embers are spread. “

Los Angeles County Sheriff Daryl Osby speaks at a news conference.

Los Angeles Fire County Sheriff Daryl Osby speaks during a press conference in La Cañada Flintridge on Thursday about the outlook for the 2022 fire season. Orange County Fire Department Superintendent Brian Fennessy, left, and Captain Erik Scott review by the Los Angeles Fire Department.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Fire Department Superintendent Daryl Osby said agencies are also “looking at the science of fire” to reevaluate vegetation guidelines and are working to strengthen the state’s firefighters. them, especially in windy areas, where fires can grow rapidly out of control.

Additionally, the area’s fire department is pursuing local and statewide fuel reduction projects, Osby said, including using goats to maintain fire-prone vegetation as well as thin mechanical and capable of controlling burns.

Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties are also retrofitting firefighting helicopters on standby to help reduce water and slow entry into the blaze, he said.

But individual agencies are often ill-suited to the new type of wildfire, officials said.

“These massive wildfires are so massive, so destructive that no fire department can handle it on their own, so the word is out,” said Brian Marshall, California Governor’s director of fire and rescue. The call for mutual aid is literally every day,” said Brian Marshall, the Governor of California’s fire and rescue director. Office of Emergency Services. In the last fiscal year, the cost of extinguishing the state’s wildfires exceeded $1.1 billion.

Osby said current conditions, including drought, will certainly make it more difficult to fight fires this year. Crews have pre-determined water sources in Los Angeles County where crews can refill their tanks, he said, and they will also rely heavily on retarders and foam.

Scientist Dahl said climate trends that fuel fires are expected to continue to varying degrees, depending on how quickly we can cut emissions that trap heat from fuels. fossil.

“The more effectively we can cut those emissions, and the faster we can cut those emissions, the less likely we are to see the growth of wildfires in the state,” she said.

But when it comes to the 2022 season in Southern California, officials have made it clear that the writing is on the wall.

“Given the fuel conditions, the fire conditions we’re talking about here, I see four, five, six months ahead of us that are very difficult,” Fennessy said. California Officials offer grim outlook for 2022 fire season

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