The new normal for state’s fire season is here

The Butte fire in Sheep Ranch is one of three major fires in Northern California, and one of at least a dozen burning statewide.
The Butte fire in Sheep Ranch is one of three major fires in Northern California, and one of at least a dozen burning statewide. aseng@sacbee.com

There is no minimizing the gravity of this year’s fire season. “Apocalyptic” is the word people keep using, and it’s grimly apt.

Fueled by drought, heat, climate change, insect infestations and fire patterns intense enough to create their own weather, wildfires have borne down on California with biblical vengeance. The Valley fire has consumed more than 61,000 acres of Napa and Lake counties. Another 71,000-plus have burned in the Butte fire in Gold Country. The Rough fire in Fresno County now stands at a record 138,000 acres.

Imagine all of Sacramento, all of Fresno and half of Los Angeles exploding into a towering inferno. And those are just three of about a dozen large wildfires raging throughout the state.

Our hearts go out to the traumatized evacuees, many of whom were drawn to these rural areas by the chance to be close to nature. Lake County is a haven for wine country workers who can’t afford homes in gentrified Napa and Sonoma counties. The Gold Country is filled with retirees who hoped for golden years with a view.

Now hundreds of homes are destroyed. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced. At least one person is dead.

The threatened land is some of the most beautiful and historic in California – tawny slopes of oak and grassland, ancient stands of giant sequoias. The natural loss from these fires is sure to be massive, too.

State fire officials say their money and manpower are sufficient. But federal funding has been shaky for years, with agencies regularly dipping into fire prevention budgets to cover fire suppression shortfalls.

And local departments are being strained by their mutual aid obligations. A Sacramento City Fire spokesman told a Bee editorial board member that the Valley and Butte fires had pulled 27 of Sacramento’s 550 or so firefighters and three city rigs out of local rotation. The department was so tapped over the weekend that officials had to close one fire station and idle engine companies at two others. With Sacramento already facing a rash of fires on the American River Parkway, the city’s defenses may need to be reassessed.

State firefighters have battled 1,600 more fires than average this year, and the Santa Ana and Diablo winds haven’t even begun. Biblical or not, they bear a message that we ignore at our peril: “This is the future,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it at a news conference on Monday. “From now on.”