Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: New normal for wildfires requires new approaches

Destroyed homes and vehicles scorched by the Valley fire line in Middletown on Sept. 21.
Destroyed homes and vehicles scorched by the Valley fire line in Middletown on Sept. 21. Associated Press

We’ve all seen how bad this year’s wildfire season has been in California. Now we have confirmation of how historically horrible it has been – along with a warning that we better get used to it.

The Public Policy Institute of California updated Cal Fire records to account for the late-summer Rough, Valley and Butte fires.

The Rough fire in Fresno County makes the all-time top 20 list for acres burned, while the Valley fire in Lake County and Butte fire in Amador and Calaveras counties make the top 10 for most destructive.

Finally on Thursday, the Butte fire, which started Sept. 9, was completely extinguished, but not before burning nearly 71,000 acres, killing two people, injuring one and destroying more than 800 structures.

As of Thursday night, Cal Fire reported that the Valley blaze, which began Sept. 12, was 97 percent contained at about 76,000 acres. It killed four civilians, injured four firefighters and destroyed nearly 2,000 structures.

Fire season isn’t over yet. Now the highest risk moves to Southern California, which usually has its biggest wildfires in the fall when Santa Ana winds pick up. Many on the all-time lists burned in Los Angeles, San Diego or Ventura counties.

PPIC says it’s no coincidence that two of the three largest fires on record – the Rush fire in 2012 in Lassen County and the Rim fire in Tuolumne in 2013 – have occurred since the drought started in 2012.

Hotter temperatures and dry conditions reduce moisture in live and dead trees and vegetation – a recipe for more frequent and intense fires. Once they do start, higher temperatures and lower humidity mean they’re more likely to grow during the night, giving firefighters less chance to catch up.

Even if it does rain, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Storms last December fed new growth of wild grass, but because the drought took hold again in January, the vegetation had dried up by March, creating more fuel for fires.

CalFire says that through Sept. 26 it has responded to 5,500 wildfires this year that consumed more than 305,000 acres. That compares to a five-year average of 3,850 fires and 107,000 acres.

The worsening fire seasons have sparked deeper debates about how best to prevent wildfires in the era of drought and climate change. Some researchers say the Forest Service should allow smaller fires to burn out more often, consuming dry brush and other fuel, to prevent bigger ones. PPIC also blames poor forest management practices for bigger fires.

There’s also more interest in how best to pay for fighting them if this is the way it’s going to be. Advocates say big wildfires should be treated as other natural disasters, using emergency money and not starving regular accounts that could otherwise be used for wildfire prevention.

These debates are a healthy development for smart policy and will eventually lead to healthier forests. It’s too bad that it’s too late for the families and communities that have already lost so much.

By the numbers

California’s most destructive wildfires:

  • 1. Tunnel-Oakland Hills (Alameda County, 1991): 25 deaths, 2,900 structures destroyed
  • 2. Cedar (San Diego County, 2003): 15 deaths, 2,820 structures
  • 3. Valley (Lake, Napa, Sonoma counties, 2015): 4 deaths, 1,958 structures
  • 4. Witch (San Diego County, 2007): 2 deaths, 1,650 structures
  • 5. Old (San Bernardino County, 2003): 6 deaths, 1,003 structures
  • 6. Jones (Shasta County, 1999): 1 death, 954 structures
  • 7. Butte (Amador, Calaveras counties, 2015): 2 deaths, 818 structures
  • 8. Paint (Santa Barbara County, 1990): 1 death, 641 structures
  • 9. Fountain (Shasta, 1992): 636 structures
  • 10. Sayre (Los Angeles County, 2008): 604 structures

Source: Cal Fire