Getting Ready for the Big One—Fire, That Is

In this Alta newsletter, we cover what to know for the remainder of California's wildfire season. 

A Cal Fire airplane drops retardant on a large hilltop home that caught fire during a 2014 wildfire in San Marcos.
A Cal Fire airplane drops retardant on a large hilltop home that caught fire during a 2014 wildfire in San Marcos.

It’s fire season in California, although compared with this time last year, you’d hardly know it. Approximately 28,183 California acres have burned so far, while a staggering 622,654 acres burned by around this time last year. In fact, we’ve yet to see a 2019 megafire—classified as a fire that burns 100,000 acres or more. But California isn’t out of the woods. Here’s what you need to know for the remainder of the season: 

Fire season is longer and more destructive than it used to be. According to Robert Baird, a regional director of fire and aviation management at the U.S. Forest Service, “it’s no longer a fire season, we’re now calling it a fire year.” Cal Fire officials agree. A special report on climate change from Canada’s National Observer has some eye-opening graphics on California’s 20 biggest wildfires. Of note: as the year progresses, fires tend to move from inland areas to coastal and mountain regions. 

In her feature in Alta’s Issue 8, journalist Bonnie Tsui reported on the men and women of Cal Fire’s aerial fleet, the largest of its kind in the world. Many of Cal Fire’s aerial first responders fight fires in their own communities, like Chico battalion chief Shem Hawkins, whose family lived in Paradise. The agency aims to have aircraft fighting fire anywhere in California within 20 minutes—a staggering task, considering the state’s size and the number of often concurrent blazes. According to Cal Fire’s statistics, the agency battled 3,993 wildfires this year as of September 8. As I type this, numerous fires are underway around the state.  

Some California cities and towns are contemplating drastic measures to protect their communities from wildfires. Mill Valley’s city council considered a mandatory “hardscape” ordinance that would have required about 75 percent of the city’s residents—those whose homes are most at risk of wildfire—to create a three-foot “hardscape” of pavers, concrete, brick, gravel, or bare ground around their homes. While the council initially approved the ordinance, it was made “voluntary” following immense backlash from homeowners. 

Unfortunately, a slow start doesn’t mean a slow fire season. Strong winds are forecast this week for Southern California, a weather shift that has area experts on edge. This comes after a dry spell: California received only 25 percent of its average rainfall for August. As we head into fall and anxiously await the winter rains, more wildfires seem destined to occur.

This article originally appeared in Alta‘s September 12, 2019 newsletter. 

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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