Fires are a force of destruction and renewal, and every year they force thousands of people to evacuate their homes in California. To date this year alone, more than 4,200 fires have burned more than 183,000 acres, an increase of 9% percent compared to last year, according to Cal Fire.
Wildfires in California affect two very different ecosystems: the mountain forests and the lower elevation chaparral, oak woodlands, and grasslands.
Lower elevation ecosystems burned at intervals of 100 to 130 years before humans arrived. Nowadays, the chaparral shrublands in Southern California experience returning fires every 10 to 20 years in the same areas, killing most of the vegetation.
And, even the high elevation conifer forests, which are more adapted to recurrent fires, are suffering a decline in their ability to recover from wildfire, since dry conditions are altering the growth and formation of vulnerable new post-fire seedlings.
Unfortunately, as the frequency and intensity of drought increases, lots of evapotranspiration turns the desiccating timbers into real tinder boxes. Tree death substantially increased last year, which in combination with strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures, creates explosive fire growth and unprecedented conditions.
Mike Mohler, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, reported in NPR, “In my 22 years, I haven’t seen fire move like I have this year. I was with a 31-year veteran on the Blue Cut fire. He said the same thing. I’ve never seen it like this. [ The San Bernardino County fire]”
Mohler also pointed out that fire season is the “new normal” in California, affecting medium and long term fire departments, where new staffing models have to replace traditional ones and additional equipment is required for year-round operations.
But, what happened with all the rainfall from this past winter? From across the central and southern portions of the state, one average winter was ineffective in reducing the severe effects of the fifth year of drought.
And, in the coming decades, California’s weather will become hotter and drier. Officials are expecting that the increase of greenhouse gases will shrink the Sierra Nevada mountain snowpack by up to 30 percent, vastly affecting one of our major water supplies.
California’s future is a dry one, but we can help prevent thirst from continuing to grow if we make water conservation a habit.