SAN FRANCISCO – Facing 600 forest fires in just the past three days, emergency responders rushed to evacuate tens of thousands of people in southern California on Thursday when a state-owned company said one of its main transmission lines broke near the source. controlling the Kincade fire in northern California.
The Kincade fire, the biggest this week, crossed steep gorges in the northern Sonoma County wine country, spanning 16,000 acres within hours of lighting. The gusts of wind pushed the fire through the forests like torches, leaving firefighters with little opportunity to stop or slow down the walls of flame that crossed wild lands and highways overnight.
And north of Los Angeles, 50,000 people were evacuated when high winds hit the Santa Clarita Gorges, threatening many homes.
Aerial footage of the Kincade fire showed houses engulfed in flames driven by high winds that could become even stronger in the coming days. But beyond the destruction, which seemed limited on Thursday to several dozen buildings, hundreds of thousands of people were affected by both the fires and a deliberate blackout designed to prevent them. Schools and businesses closed and thousands of people evacuated their homes.
All of this is happening after three straight years of record fires that researchers say are likely to continue in a warming world and raise an important question: How to live in an ecosystem that is ready to burn?
"I think the perception is that we should control them. But in many cases we can't," said John Abatzoglou, an associate professor at the University of Idaho. "And that may allow us to think a little differently about how we live with fire. We call it that's wildfire for the reason – it's not domestic fire. "
According to the National Climate Assessment, the government report summarizing the present and future effects of a hot climate in the United States, fire is a growing problem. Climate change will lead to more fires across the country as warmer temperatures dry out plants, making them easier to ignite.
The total area burned in a single year by wildfires in the United States has exceeded just 13,900 square miles – an area larger than the country of Belgium – four times since the middle of the last century. All four times have happened in this decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.
"There is anger in the community," Michael Gossman, deputy administrator of the Sonoma County resilience and recovery office, said in an interview this year. In 2017, his California county was devastated by the Sonoma Complex fires, which killed 24 and burned more than 170 square kilometers. Governor Gavin Newsom said conditions this week were analogous to 2017.
Many Northern California residents faced a double threat on Thursday: fires, but also the deliberate lack of energy to mitigate the flames. Both the Kincade fire and a small fire that ignited on Thursday morning, the spring fire, occurred in areas near where state-owned Pacific Gas and Electric turned off the power.
The fires "brought some longstanding institutional issues about equity," Gossman said. Critics say the power outage disproportionately harms low-income people who can't afford solar and battery backup systems or gas generators, as well as sick and disabled people who rely on electricity to operate life-saving medical equipment.
While winds in California are expected to decline further on Thursday, officials warned that extreme winds and dry conditions that create a high risk of fire could return on Sunday. That's why government agencies are preparing to deal with fires that are increasingly seen as inevitable.
Prescribed burns or planned fires, such as last spring on Brawley Mountain in Georgia, south of the Appalachians, about 100 miles north of Atlanta, are often seen as part of the solution.
The idea that fire could be used to help fight fire and restore ecosystems first gained institutional acceptance in the south. In 1958, a policy change was made to allow the first prescribed burn in a national park in the Everglades National Park, Florida.
For some time the practice remained anomalous outside the south. But in the south, according to Nathan Klaus, a senior wildlife biologist at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, even private landowners occasionally set off small controlled fires on their properties.
Prior to the fire-fighting era, northern Georgia around Brawley Mountain used to burn approximately every three to five years, according to Dr. Klaus. These flames allowed species that could withstand some fire, such as the long-leaved pine, to proliferate and flourish, shaping local ecosystems.
Some of these fires were caused by natural events such as lightning; others were caused by human activity. The Forest Service notes that Native Americans used prescribed burns to aid in food production. These smaller fires act as a kind of incendiary rake, clearing herbs, shrubs, and other plant matter before they can grow to become fuel for larger and more extreme fires.
Dave Martin, who oversees fire and aviation management in the Southern Forest Service region, said a prescribed burn costs about $ 30 to $ 35 an acre – instead of spending $ 1,000 an acre to put out a fire. "The cost of suppressing a fire is more than a prescribed burn," he said.
It was a combination of forest overgrowth and drought conditions that helped fuel the Great Smoky Mountains fires of Tennessee in 2016, which killed at least 14 people. Several fires burned in eight southeastern states that year, the same year that Kansas suffered the largest forest fire in its history. The Anderson Creek prairie fire, which also affected Oklahoma, blackened about 960 square kilometers.
The 2016 forest fires also allowed researchers to compare the intensity of the fire between the areas that suffered prescribed burns and those that did not. Fires in areas that were prescribed were less intense. "It's gone from a 20 to 30 foot front," said Klaus, referring to the height of the main edge of the wildfire that had not burned "at two to three feet."
Reintroducing fire into the earth is more complex than lighting a match. You cannot burn where people live, for example. But across the country, living near wild land is the fastest growing type of land use in the United States. More people are moving to areas most likely to burn and in some cases may oppose the prescribed burn.
"Part of this work means educating local communities," said Mike Brod, Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests fire and natural resources officer.
And there are limits to the prescribed burn. If conditions are too humid, the fire will not ignite, but if it is too dry, it is difficult to contain the fire. Like Goldilocks, for wild land managers, conditions need to be perfect. This includes not only wind speed, which can affect the spread of a fire, but also its direction.
And when the burning begins, your smoke can travel great distances. Smoke from last year's California forest fires not only caused a haze over much of the state, but also transformed the sunset in Washington, DC. On Thursday, NOAA warned Bay Area residents that “the Tomorrow's winds are likely to cause smoke to be directly in much of the region, ”as a result of the Kincade fire.
Therefore, during planned burns, major efforts should be made to ensure that smoke is directed away from population centers. "If the smoke is not doing what we want, we will turn it off," said Nick Peters, interim fire management officer in Chattooga River Ranger District in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.
Smoke particles from a fire are similar to the type of pollution released by burning gasoline or coal. Called PM 2.5, small particles are associated with negative health effects. In the west, increased forest fires have aggravated enough air pollution to erode some of the air quality gains with the Clean Air Act.
Earlier this year, NOAA and NASA launched a mission to learn more about fire smoke. The program led planes to Western forest fires and Midwest farm fires throughout the summer and fall.
Much fire and climate research is divided into two fields: observational modelers (who run large computer simulations) and researchers (who collect observational data using sophisticated monitors), said Rajan Chakrabarty, assistant professor at the University of Washington in St. Louis. The purpose of the mission was to fill this gap.
But flying into the fire is not for the belly wimps. As the plane flies in flames, the cabin fills with the smell of smoke that evokes a barbecue or bonfire. And sampling a plume of fire usually involves the kind of bustling turbulence that commercial flights do everything to avoid.
By taking samples during an active fire, scientists hope to understand what is in the smoke and how the chemical composition changes over time.
"This air is blowing downwind and therefore will affect areas outside where the fire was burning," said Hannah Halliday, NASA Langley researcher, who also participated in the mission. "And we have models of how emissions change, but we want to make sure we have the right chemistry and the right physics."
The hope is that, in the long run, smoke models will be as sophisticated as climate models and can inform people in advance when they will need to prepare for smoke, even if they are relatively far from the site of an occurrence. fire.
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Thomas Fuller reported in San Francisco. Kendra Pierre-Louis reported from Brawley …