California's Wildfires the Deadly Flip Side of this Year's Rainfall

October 11, 2017 10:14 PM
Grapes Wildfire

There’s a dark side to the torrent of precipitation that ended California’s long drought earlier this year: Rain and snow pumped life back into bushes, shrubs and grasses and created ideal fuel for infernos.

They’ve been raging since Sunday in the wine country north of San Francisco, claiming at least 21 lives, and also in Orange County near Los Angeles. Vegetation that blossomed in May and June dried out when summer temperatures soared, to record levels in some areas. Once-welcome green foliage crumbled into a parched stockpile for a disastrous fall fire season.

Then came gusty autumn winds -- the bad luck of two weather systems colliding -- and the stage was set for massive wildfires that have so far charred almost 170,000 acres.

“The conditions are just ripe -- the recipe is just right,” said Amy Head, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CalFire for short, who was in the field with crews at the Tubbs Fire between Calistoga and Santa Rosa on Wednesday.

The combination of high winds and dry conditions set up what the National Weather Service calls a “red flag warning.” And it’s not over. Head said another warning will likely be issued through Thursday.

Fire has consumed or significantly damaged at least five wineries in Napa Valley in a blow to an industry that pumps $58 billion annually into the state’s economy, and destroyed at least 3,500 homes and other structures, according to CalFire. The toll of death and destruction is expected to rise. Governor Jerry Brown has declared states of emergency in several counties. Hundreds of people are still reported missing.

Dead Trees

At this point, the exact sparks that ignited the various fires haven’t been determined; the culprit could be Mother Nature or human stupidity, or a combination. Some are pointing fingers at power lines knocked down by strong gusts of wind. But it seems clear that the greenery the state welcomed in the spring after so many years of drought has played a big role.

“It’s one of the things you have to work through -- you get that relief but then you have that follow-on fall where conditions are ripe for fires to be extreme,” said Mike Anderson, the California state climatologist in Sacramento.

For all the lesser foliage that flourished earlier this year, many trees didn’t revive -- they need a lot more moisture -- and a bark-beetle infestation left a swath of dried trunks vulnerable to sparks. In June, Head estimated California had 100 million dead trees.

All of it primed the state for disaster when two weather patterns got into position to play their roles in the drama. One was a low-pressure system spinning counter-clockwise over the U.S. Southwest, the other a high-pressure ridge in the Pacific rotating the other way. They meshed like gears to pull dry air and high winds into northern California, Anderson said.

Is there hope on the horizon? Anderson said the strongest winds might start to ease up over the next 48 hours. There is a chance of rain next week. But even then, he said “we’re we’re just catching the dregs.”

With assistance by Jennifer Kaplan, Jeffrey Taylor, and Lydia Mulvany.

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