Massive California Blazes, And It’s Not Even Official Wildfire Season Yet

By | September 16, 2015

A pair of massive blazes in the Northern California are a bleak reminder of how bad things can get in a state with persistent drought and windy conditions.

A more worrisome thought is California’s official wildfire season has yet to begin.

The fierce and destructive Valley Fire in Northern California has consumed more than 70,000 acres, destroyed 585 homes and hundreds of structures, killing one person, according to fire officials.

The fire is threating another 7,650 structures, and it’s only 30 percent contained.

A little rainfall in the state brought in by Tropical Storm Linda may have raised some hopes that winter is coming soon, bringing with it drought relief and an end to the state’s wildfire season.

Verisk Wildfire Table
California dominates a list of state most prone to wildfires. Source: Verisk Insurance Solutions

That hope may be unfounded.

“I think it will be reasonable not to assume that fire season will end with these two events,” said Tomas Girnius, a principal scientist at Boston-based catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

Talk of an El Niño, which typically drenches California in rain, may also stoke optimism for an end to drought and a tame wildfire season.

However, there’s no reason to think the cyclical winter weather pattern will come early enough to dampen the state’s traditional wildfire season in late September and October.

“It will probably bring more rain this winter, but whether it will come early enough to help the fire season remains to be seen,” Girnius said.

Girnius pointed out that there are three elements needed for a catastrophic fire: dried out vegetation; an ignition close to inhabited areas; and severe winds.

Much of the state is in exceptional drought conditions, the highest level given by the U.S. Drought Monitor report, and California has ensured a drought for the past four years. While the winds fanning the Valley Fire are tamer than the Santa Ana’s, which typically sweep across the state in late September and throughout October to create myriad fire hazards, they were enough to quicken the spread of the fire with winds measured at 20 mph and gusts to 30 mph.

The area’s other major blaze is the Butte Fire. The 71,780-acre fire started Sept. 9 and has destroyed 233 homes and another 175 structures. One person was killed in the fire, which is 45 percent contained.

Munich Re issued a report on the fires on Wednesday, in which Mark Bove, a senior research meteorologist, noted the two fires have together destroyed more than 1,000 structures.

“To put this in perspective, the 2007 Witch Creek Fire in San Diego County destroyed about 1,600 homes, causing an industry-wide insured loss of $1.5 billion (all values US$ 2015),” Bove wrote in the report. “Although it is too early to provide any current loss estimates, the Valley Fire could become the largest wildfire loss event in Northern California since the Oakland firestorm in 1991.”

The state’s costliest wildfire was the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which produced $2.7 billion in claims (in 2014 dollars), according to the Insurance Information Institute.

I.I.I. considers California “the epicenter of wildfire activity in the United States,” with seven of the 10 costliest wildfires in U.S. history in insured losses occurring in the Golden State.

Fire and catastrophe experts have warned of California’s growing wildfire potential since the state began experiencing drought conditions, but so its seasons are tame by comparison with past seasons.

That may be due to luck, but Girnius surmised that preparedness and beefed up firefighting resources may have something to do with it as well.

“I think that the fire suppression resources are more savvy than they used to be,” Girnius said. “They are not getting caught flatfooted, they have a better sense of what can happen and they act as soon as there are signs of trouble.”

A U.S. Forest Service report issued Wednesday shows the cost of wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million during a one week period at the height of suppression activity in late August.

The report partly blames continued expansion of housing development near forests, an area referred to as the wildland-urban interface, which it said has serious implications for the cost of wildfire fighting.

The percent of homes in the WUI rose by more than 5 percent from 2000 and 2010, when it grew to include roughly 44 million homes, with the highest concentrations of houses in the WUI in California, Texas and Florida, according to the report.

More than 2,793 firefighting personnel are working on the Valley Fire, along with 317 fire engines, 70 water tenders, 43 dozers, 15 helicopters and eight tankers, according to fire officials.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. It started on Sept. 12, and was expanded rapidly by winds. Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for several nearby communities.

Cooler weather overnight on Tuesday to Wednesday helped keep fire behavior “moderate,” and the possibility of rain could assist firefighting efforts, according to an official fire report.

This year maybe a quieter wildfire year than it could have been for California, but state’s wildfire seasons are now longer.

“In the last few years California’s fire season is longer than used to be, going into early summer and late spring events,” Girnius said. “That was pretty unusual a decade ago.”

He added, “Now we’re approaching the traditional peak season.”

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