You don't have to live in California to know the state is under unusually early attack by fierce, driving wildfire. Ironically, last week was California's Wildfire Awareness Week. San Diego County, long known for some of the state's most disastrous brush-fed conflagrations, has had dozens of wildfires going since then.
Starting with a fire near Rancho Bernardo, a succession of separate blazes began a flaming spree on Tuesday. These and later burns have consumed over 10,000 acres so far. Many of them are still crackling uncontained.
Residents have evacuated in large numbers. Fire officials asked 20,000 people to leave on Tuesday night; now the number is up to 125,000. Over 20 schools in the San Diego Unified School District closed by today, and officials didn't expect some of them to reopen until next week. Power went out in some threatened areas. Fires charred the brush along Interstate 5, the freeway that runs up and down the West Coast, and at one point closed it down.
To aid first responders and keep curious onlookers from entering dangerous areas, authorities have set up numerous roadblocks. They have also cautioned police to be vigilant about empty home and business invasion and to check on motels and hardware stores suspected of price gouging. Prosecutors will show little mercy for such behavior.
"As quickly as the sun came up, so did the smoke," Cal Fire Battalion Chief Nick Schuler told CNN.
Emergency telephone calls went out on Wednesday from Alert San Diego, the county's notification system, to nearly 122,000 households. San Diego County declared a local emergency early yesterday afternoon to engage special resources and funding, Governor Jerry Brown declared a county emergency last evening, and state officials set up a central command center. The Obama administration has sent large air tanker planes and firefighter first-line hotshot crews to aid in the effort.
More evacuation advisories went out. At least 350 of the evacuees had no alternate housing and spent Wednesday night in shelters. Three dozen fires occupied responders overnight. From new CNN iReporter Jay Ringgold, an information technology manager in Carlsbad:
"People were very surprised that [the fire] came that close to the business district. There are a lot of big companies there--near that is a brush area and homes. Everyone was panicking and wanting to get out of there."
By mid-morning today (Thursday), eight fires were still very concerning. Among them:
- Poinsettia Fire (Carlsbad)--the most destructive
- Cocos Fire--today's top priority
- Tomahawk Fire (Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook)--the largest so far
- Freeway Fire--also at Camp Pendleton
- Bernardo Fire--first of the series
- Highway Fire--near Interstate 15 and State Route 76
- River Fire--in Oceanside
- Pulgas Fire--started at 2:45 this afternoon
Along with the major ones, small fires occurred in Escondido, Lakeside, Scripps Ranch, and Poway.
Working in the responders' favor are somewhat calmer winds, but this was supposed to be the hottest day of the week (highs between 98 - 106 degrees). Fortunately, the temps have only been in the high 90s to 100. However, that was enough to break records and cancel live thoroughbred racing at Santa Anita Park, east of LA.
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore offered a note of cautious optimism: if the weather improves, "Hopefully we'll see San Diego County get back to the beautiful place we like to live in in a couple of days."
That's a great wish for this set of fires in the short term. However, climate science experts don't expect it to hold true in the long run. The third US National Climate Assessment, released earlier this month, elaborated:
Human-triggered climate change is touching every region of the United States in some way, and effects are projected to intensify if greenhouse-gas emissions aren't reduced and eventually brought to zero....
One of these effects is wildfire. And here's what the Climate Science Panel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the world's largest nongovernment scientific society) said in its definitive March 17 summary, What We Know: The Reality, Risks And Response To Climate Change:
Climate change has amplified the threat of wildfires in many places. In the western U.S., both the area burned by wildfires as well as the length of the fire season have increased substantially in recent decades. Earlier spring snowmelt and higher spring and summer temperatures contribute to this change. Climate change has increased the threat of “mega-fires”--large fires that burn proportionately greater areas.
Going back to the policymakers' summary the UN reported in its first April IPCC report (AR5-II), here's what we can expect:
Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being.
Until mid-century, projected climate change will impact human health mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist (very high confidence). Throughout the 21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions and especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without climate change (high confidence). Examples include greater likelihood of injury, disease, and death due to more intense heat waves and fires (very high confidence).