By Brian K. Sullivan
July 8 (Bloomberg) -- Conditions are right for ``explosive fire growth potential'' in 650 miles of dry mountain range along the U.S. Pacific Coast, from southern Oregon to just north of Los Angeles, forecasters said today.
Gusty winds, dry air and record temperatures reaching past 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) have combined to create the perfect environment for new fires and to let those already burning spread rapidly, according to the National Weather Service in Monterey, California.
The warning follows an ``unprecedented'' start to the fire season, when 1,700 fires erupted in a 48-hour period starting June 21, said Mike Richwine, a division chief with state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The ``red flag'' hazard area includes the state's Big Sur and Santa Barbara regions, where fires threaten hundreds of homes.
``Critical fire conditions are occurring now or will be occurring soon,'' weather service meteorologist Suzanne Anderson said by telephone. ``We have explosive fire growth potential.''
Fires have burned 960 square miles in California, and 323 active fires continue to consume land and threaten more than 10,000 homes, commercial buildings and other structures, according to the Forestry Department, also known as CalFire. California has spent more than $100 million fighting the blazes.
``The red flag is a warning to all fire fighters that there is a real potential for explosive conditions,'' said Terry Reedy, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in Salinas. ``Everything can burn much more rapidly and it becomes much more dangerous for the individuals out there.''
A 445-mile (718-kilometer) stretch of the coastal and inland areas above 1,000-foot (305-meter) elevations from near Gold Beach, Oregon, to Big Sur is under a red flag warning from the National Weather Service. Areas around Los Angeles and throughout southern California are experiencing similar conditions.
The Butte County Sheriff's Office ordered residents of Concow, California, 81 miles north of Sacramento, to leave their homes. Many of them had just returned to their homes after an evacuation that lasted three days, said Cheri Patterson of CalFire.
Concow has a population of about 1,095, according to the 2000 U.S. census. The evacuation order covers the entire community, said Dan Blair, spokesman for Butte County.
The Butte fire was started by lightning on June 21, has burned 57 square miles and threatens 1,200 homes, according to the CalFire statement.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought June 4 because of two years of below-average rainfall and little snowmelt runoff.
The weather makes fighting the fires harder and puts fire fighters under greater stress, Anderson said.
``They have to stay hydrated,'' Anderson said. ``It is not going to be comfortable for them.''
Throughout the state, temperatures are expected to break records today, said George Cline, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
The high in Redding, 146 miles north of Sacramento, is forecast to reach 115 degrees today, breaking last year's record for the date of 112, Cline said by telephone. In Modesto, 68 miles south of Sacramento, the temperature should reach 110, breaking the record of 102 set in 2006.
``We're in the middle of the current heat wave with today and tomorrow being the hottest days,'' Cline said.
The fires in Big Sur, 150 miles south of San Francisco, and near Goleta in Santa Barbara County, about 84 miles north of Los Angeles, are covered by the red flag warnings.
The Goleta fire, which began July 1, is 35 percent contained and covers an area of 15 square miles. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The Big Sur blaze covers about 125 square miles and is about 18 percent contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service Web site. A disease called Sudden Oak Death blamed for thousands of dead trees in the past decade has added fuel to the fire that began with lightning strikes June 21.
As many as 1,500 people have been evacuated from their homes in the scenic coastal area. The fire is expected to be contained by July 30, said Bertha Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services.
Some residents are being let back into their homes in certain parts of Big Sur, Monterey County spokesman Al Friedrich said.
Cattle and Timber
The fires may affect timber and livestock prices, said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farm organization in the state with about 92,000 members.
Before the fires, about 97 percent of the state's rangeland was rated in poor to very poor condition, Kranz said by telephone from his office in Sacramento. The fires may force ranchers to cull their herds or pay extra for feed.
The Weather Channel celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with unprecedented coverage reaching into 93 million houses around the United States. If recent months are any indication, demand for coverage could still increase.
With vicious storms flooding the northeast u.s. all the way down to Kentucky, and drought-fed fires ravaging the southeast and western states, no longer do weather channels face the challenge of making mundane weather interesting. Their challenge these days is deciding which crisis to cover.
In April, a major storm system crossed the coast of the North Atlantic, dumping 9 inches of rain on areas around New Jersey and 8 inches in New York City’s Central Park. The storm proceeded to blanket much of the eastern seaboard before it headed inland and eventually swelled the Missouri River, resulting in the breaching of many levees along its banks. National Weather Service meteorologist Suzanne Fortin called it “a major flood” and said it would be in the top three most devastating ever (Register-Guard, May 10).
Just a couple of states further south, rain would have been a blessing.
In early May, massive fires charred the countryside in Georgia and northern Florida, burning over 330 square miles, or 212,000 acres, closing down two major highways and necessitating evacuations. At one point, over 1,200 Florida firefighters—the equivalent of about 1½ army battalions—beat back 236 individual fires.
In the west, the weather is no better. The fire season, which normally starts around the end of June in California, began in March when a fire in Orange County scorched 2,036 acres. Then in May, the Los Angeles area endured two fires—an 800-acre blaze near Pasadena and a 4,750-acre fire on Santa Catalina Island that forced 3,300 people to evacuate.
While the first wave of fires was not of unprecedented devastation in and of itself, the early onset of the fire season sets a daunting precedent for the coming year.
With drought conditions now affecting nearly half of the u.s., the potential for fire is frightening. The more extreme the drought, the greater the likelihood of an equally extreme fire. In the case of Southern California, the past year has seen the “least amount of precipitation ever recorded” (ibid., May 14). Noting the situation, one fire department captain said, “If the weather is any indication, I think it is going to be a big fire year” (California Aggie, May 16).
California’s southeastern neighbors Arizona and New Mexico are currently experiencing the “worst drought in 500 years” (op. cit., May 14). The parched countryside, if ignited, could erupt into a blaze of historic proportions.
Too often, man views his relationship with nature as a battle, doing all he can to offset its attacks with precaution and preemptive strikes such as early-warning systems, more flood-protection levees and forest thinning. But such measures were never meant to be necessary. Mankind, as usual, tries to treat symptoms rather than causes.
God promises throughout the Bible that obedience to Him will result in rain in due season, when and where it is needed (Leviticus 26:4; Deuteronomy 11:14; 28:12).
Our cursed weather is the result of mankind choosing the way of self-reliance. God said, through the Prophet Amos, “I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it to not rain upon another city: one piece was rained upon, and the piece whereupon it rained not withered” (Amos 4:7). Amos, a successful agriculturalist, knew the keys to receiving rain in due season and was blessed because of it.
We too can receive those blessings—if not nationally, then on the individual level. But at the same time, realize a time of national prosperity will soon come when even the desert will blossom as a rose (Isaiah 35:1).
Until then, you may want to get your fill of the Weather Channel, for in the future there will be no need for it. But for now, it is a sure sign of the times we live in. •