It’s not noon yet, but it’s already getting hot as Alan Huston makes his way through the dry, thorny bush on a parquet hill overlooking the town of Los Gatos.
“If a fire breaks out here, everything will burn,” said Huston, a researcher at San Jose State University’s weather research lab. “Some health is the biggest looking tree. But a lot of that?” His voice faded as he swung his hand over the water-hungry landscape laden with millions of homes. “Doesn’t look good.”
It’s a chorus that has been heard more and more this summer, from the Silicon Valley Sierra, Southern California to Shasta County. California is on edge. Two consecutive dry winter records, followed by early heat waves that pushed temperatures above 110 degrees in some places, have left dangerous vegetation dry and primitive to burn in the warmer summer months.
In 2020, a record 4.3 million acres were burned nationwide – 1 in every 24 acres in California. Those fires, some started during incredibly dry August thunderstorms, killed 33 people, destroyed more than 10,000 homes and destroyed the visitor center, campground and other facilities at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the oldest in California, in the Santa Mountains. Cruz. set fire. In the southern Sierra, fires have wiped out an estimated 10 percent of all giant sequoias in the world. They covered the cities with stifling smoke and turned the sky over San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose into a bright apocalyptic orange.
Conditions are drier this year.
Moisture in Chamise, a chaparral plant found throughout the state, is at its lowest level on record in early July since the San Jose State Fire Laboratory began regular readings in 2009. Much of the mountain vegetation The Bay Area, the lab scientists say, is dry now as it normally is in September. This means that the risk of fire peaks will be two months longer this year than in average years.
Across the state, wildfire rates are already ahead of last year. From Jan. 1 to July 6, California saw 4,902 wildfires on state, federal and private countries – 720 more than the same period a year ago, according to data from the National Fire Interagency Center in Boise. Those fires burned 83,237 acres statewide – more than double the 35,623 acres that burned in California a year ago this time.
From the willow fire in Big Sur to the lava fire near Mount Shasta, firefighters have been attacking fast-moving fires so far this year with massive numbers of firefighters, helicopters, motorcycles and flame-retardant aircraft.
“We’re seeing fire activity that we would normally see as early as September and October,” said chief executive Thom Porter, director of Cal Fire, the state’s first fire agency. “And we still have a very long rest of the high season to go. He’s worried.”
Many factors affect fire risk, experts say. Fire is a natural part of western forests and removes shrubs and dead trees. But a century of firefighters has left millions of acres of forest overgrown in California and in the West. Due to climate change, temperatures are rising, vegetation and soil are drying out and the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is melting sooner. Utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric have caused several deadly fires in recent years when power lines have collapsed during dry, windy days.
But this year a predominant issue is the drought.
In the Northern Sierra, California’s main watershed because it normally fills the state’s large reservoir, the past two years have been the second driest period of years since records began in 1921, at just 52% normal precipitation. The only time in the last 100 years it was drier was during the famous drought 1975-77.
Meanwhile, San Jose experienced its driest year at 128 years on record, with just 5.33 inches of rain from July 1 to June 30. That’s about the same amount of rain as Las Vegas or Palm Springs in a normal year.
San Francisco has experienced its third driest year since the gold rush in 1849. Southern California has gone a little better. The past two years have brought in 73% of normal rainfall in Los Angeles. And San Diego has seen 93% of its historical average over the past two years.
As a result, 85% of California is now in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitoring, a weekly report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NOAA and the University of Nebraska.
“We have forests already in bad shape,” said John Null, a meteorologist with the Golden Gate Weather Service in Half Moon Bay. “They are now aggravated by this dry period. We are in a bad position like I have ever seen. It only gets worse between now and when the rains start in the fall. People need to be more careful this summer a.
Typically, California’s winter rains begin in mid-November. That means the state has about 130 days to hold its breath.
Last year’s fire victims are asking others to be prepared, especially if they live near rural areas or woods.
Julie Wuest remembers running from her home on Fern Rock Way near Boulder Creek last August as the flames of the CZU Lightning Complex fire approached. Smoke filled the air and she picked up jewelry, clothes, her late father’s wedding ring and other belongings, grasping and feeling that the three-bedroom house she’d lived in for the past 17 years was about to catch fire.
He said: “We all saw pictures of people passing by in the ashes and crying.” “I never thought I’d be one of those people. Here I am.”
Wuest, 66, who worked at technology companies such as LSI Logic, Genentech and Infosys, rented an apartment in Tiburon after the fire destroyed his home and all but 27 others on his street. He has dealt with his insurance company and county planners in an effort to rebuild.
As a volunteer with the Santa Cruz County Community Emergency Response Team, she encourages people to take photos and videos now of everything they own and store them online, see insurance coverage, clean the brush, pack a travel bag and leave it in the trunk. in vehicles, scan important documents and lists on the refrigerator what they would take with them if they were evacuated suddenly.
“The adrenaline cuts off logical parts of your brain,” he says. “In an emergency, you don’t know where your keys are, you don’t know what to get.”
Particularly at risk are the East Bay Hills, communities around Lake Tahoe, Mill Valley and other areas on Mount Tamalpais in Marine, Mount Santa Cruz and the Sierra, fire experts say.
In many of these communities, forests and other deserts are traditionally burned regularly as a result of lightning strikes or burns by Native American tribes. But they haven’t been burned by firefighters for generations. In some parts of the Sierra, forests that had 40 trees per acre before the Gold Rush now have 400, said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley.
He said about 20 million acres must be thinned or cleared with prescribed fires to restore forest health, he said. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service processed 213,842 acres in California, about 75 percent of the mechanical thinning, according to Jon Groveman, a Forest Service spokesman. Cal Fire treated 105,000 acres in the year ending June 30, 2020, Porter said.
This rate needs to increase to at least 1 million acres a year – the amount Florida is doing now – Stephens said, although prescriptions burn sometimes out of hand, and mechanical thinning is expensive and sometimes controversial.
“We have to do better or we will be left behind forever,” Stephens said.
The Newsom government has increased firefighting and fire prevention budgets by $ 2 billion over the next two years. Currently, Cal Fire has 3,020 seasonal firefighters, up from 2,710 last year, bolstering its permanent staff to about 5,000. A huge drop in teams is in jail due to early release programs and COVID-19 made up with teams from the National Guard, California Conservation Corps and more Cal Fire hired, Porter said.
The state also has 12 new fire fighting helicopters and a new system of 842 remote cameras to detect fire.
But trends are clear as the climate warms and more people move to rural areas. According to scientists at UC Merced, the fire season in the Sierra Nevada has increased by 75 days since the 1970s.
Since 1932, when modern records began, six major fires in California have occurred in the past three years. State and federal governments will have to spend billions on thinning forests, tightening building regulations, strengthening “defensive space” and taking other steps to adapt to the new reality, Porter said.
“It will only get worse in the short term,” Porter said, “as we engage in the long-term solutions that we are on track to make.”