US California’s Wildfires: Why Have They Been So Destructive?

22:36  11 october  2017
22:36  11 october  2017 Source:   The New York Times

Sonoma Raceway not at 'immediate risk' as wildfire rages nearby

  Sonoma Raceway not at 'immediate risk' as wildfire rages nearby Wildfires spread to the grounds of Sonoma Raceway overnight. Track officials said the fire reached the 1,600-acre property around 3:00am Monday morning. With the increasing number of fires spreading through Sonoma and Napa Counties, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency proclamation on Monday. Major arteries surrounding Sonoma Raceway including Highways 12, 121 and 37 were closed to public traffic.“All of us at Sonoma Raceway extend our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to those who have been touched by the devastating North Bay fires,” the track said in a release.

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The Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif., was destroyed by an intense wildfire. © Jim Wilson/The New York Times The Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif., was destroyed by an intense wildfire.

Intense, fast-moving fires have been raging across much of California since Sunday night. The blazes have barreled through communities like freight trains, turning homes to dust in a blink and leaving at least 17 people dead. The largest of the fires are in the state’s wine country north of San Francisco.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Trina Grant, 40, who grew up in California but was not prepared for the ferocity of this year’s fire season. Her parents, Arthur and Suiko Grant, died on Monday when flames consumed their home.

The numbers that reveal the scope of the California wildfires

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Here’s Why October Is California ' s Most Dangerous Month for Wildfires . The 1991 Oakland hills fire that destroyed 3,500 homes and killed 25 people in Alameda County near San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, is the state's most destructive fire .

It was the most destructive wildfire in the state' s history. The state was ravaged by other fires this season as well — one fast-moving fire threatened to destroy an entire town. New Mexico and California have also seen massive wildfires this year.

Why have these fires been so destructive?

Wildfires often break out in California in October after the state’s dry, sunny summers. The fires are worse this year because of record heat over the summer and high winds now, which can swiftly turn the smallest fires into fast-moving infernos.

Weather experts note that this year’s outbreak was a long time in the making.

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Drought parched California for years, leaving it littered with fuel in the form of dry vegetation. Then the winter of 2016 and the spring of 2017 brought record amounts of rainfall, which spurred new plant growth. That was followed by months of extreme heat that withered the new growth and turned it into more tinder.

Finally, the autumn winds from the northeast, known as diablo winds, began blowing through the region over the weekend at speeds of 70 miles an hour or more.

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California Here’s Why October Is California ' s Most Dangerous Month for Wildfires . “We were watching unit by unit by unit burn down,” said Flores, 66. “We just stood there in shock. It was so fast.

That is why we have seen mass destruction ." Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Sunday for Lake and Napa counties, an order that follows an earlier one he made for the Butte fire . Wildfires Approach California ' s Deadliest and Most Destructive .

All of this is happening in a region where more people are building homes tucked into forests.

What lit these fires in the first place?

Officials are not sure yet.

There were 17 major fires burning in the state on Wednesday, and the specific cause of each fire will be investigated, according to Thom Porter, Southern California region chief at the state’s fire agency.

In general, the vast majority of wildfires are caused by people, Mr. Porter said, and the past few months have been so dry that even seemingly innocuous human activities — a boat-trailer chain dragging on a road, engine heat coming off a car parked in a grassy area — have lit fires. It is possible, he said, that similar things may have started some of the current fires.

What’s the role of climate change here?

California’s fire seasons have grown longer and more destructive in recent decades, something scientists attribute in part to increased dryness caused by warming temperatures. Researchers from the University of Idaho and Columbia University published a study last year saying that climate change had caused more than half of the dryness of Western forests since 1979.

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The fire is one of the most destructive of more than a dozen in the region. California ' s fire chief says at least 1,500 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed in wildfires that have ripped through the state's wine country.

Credit: California Highway Patrol. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection confirmed that one person was killed in Mendocino County, two in According to data provided by the National Interagency Fire Center, the total number of deaths caused by wildfires in California since 1997 is 80.

Parched landscapes can increase fire size and duration, said Scott L. Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley.

But it is important to note, he added, that climate change is not necessarily causing specific fires to occur. Wildfires are a natural part of a forest’s life cycle and have been part of the state’s history since long before anyone called it California.

Who is fighting the fires?

About 4,000 firefighters from local, state and federal agencies are on the job, according to Mr. Porter.

How do these fires compare with past California wildfires?

Taken together, the current wildfire outbreak is now the second deadliest of the last century, according to state figures. The Oakland hills fire in October 1991 was the deadliest, killing 25 people.

The Bay Area is blanketed in smoke from the fires. Is it bad to breathe?

The short answer is yes.

Residents can check on air quality in their area on the website. Make sure to look both at current conditions and the forecast.

When wood, grass and other materials burn, the flames produce gases and throw fine solid particles into the air. Those particles can burrow deep into lungs, which can be particularly dangerous for people with heart or lung diseases, older adults, people with diabetes, pregnant women, and children whose lungs are still developing.

Over the last few days, parts of the Bay Area have experienced extremely high levels of air pollution from the fires. Tom Flannigan, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, called the situation “similar to what you see in Beijing, China.”

The agency advises Bay Area residents to limit outdoor activities, keep their windows and doors closed, and set air-conditioners and automobile ventilation systems to recirculate interior air rather than draw in outside air. If residents have masks available, they should use them.

California wildfires could leave behind toxic mess .
Officials are urging people to stay inside, especially children and those with lung problems ."And also, when you're driving, make sure your AC is on re-circulate," said Alonso. "Protecting yourself from that, so your air filters are doing all the work for you and they're not bringing in that outside air."Alonso said the long-term effects of breathing in this air are still unknown. But to lessen the chances of developing a serious illness, he encouraged people to remain patient and not clean up their homes.

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