Thursday, July 31, 2008

California's fire record shattered, and we're just getting started

Mercury More acres have burned in California this year than in any other. And it's not even August. "There's a potential for a lot more fires and a lot more destruction," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the state fire department, CalFire.

A combination of a record dry spring and sparks — from a flurry of lightning strikes in late June to the bullet that is believed to have sparked the fire near Mariposa — get most of the blame.

But they come atop a pair of more persistent problems: the unnaturally dense buildup of scrub and forest left by decades of fire suppression and the inexorable incursion of people, with their ignition sources and property to be protected, into previously forested areas. Add that all up and you have a lot of charred ground.

About 1.1 million acres have burned in California already this year. The previous record was 900,000 acres, set last year when fires in Southern California raged into the fall, Berlant said. The number could increase significantly, depending largely on how much care Californians take to not start any fires. The fire season here, after all, can easily stretch into November. "Let's hope it's not one of those years," said Jason Kirschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "We really need people to be very conscious of the fire danger and be more careful than in the past."

Climate experts say some of the conditions that set the stage for this year's fires are likely to repeat more frequently as the climate continues to warm. The record dryness in March, April and May is consistent with predictions that from the central Sierra north — or from Yosemite to Mount Lassen — winter storms are expected to end earlier in the year. That's what happened this year when a series of powerful storms early in the winter gave way to a long dry spell.

"This year furnishes an example of what future years might tend to look like," said Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno. "It has aspects of what is being predicted for the future."….

An MH-60S Seahawk helicopter dumps water from a 420-gallon extinguishing trough October 23, 2007, onto of one of the many burning areas in California's San Diego County. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chris Fahey, U.S. Navy, Wikimedia Commons


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