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California wildfires could be even worse this year

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Wildfires have been burning for weeks in the western U.S., well before summer officially started just before noon Eastern time today. As bad as last year’s wildfire season was, 2019’s could be even worse according to some federal and state officials.

Despite a wet winter and spring this year, which wiped out 2018’s extreme drought across California, many parts of the state have been drying out quickly in recent weeks. This, combined with record triple-digit heat in mid-June, has created fire weather conditions all over again.

“It’s hard to imagine a repeat of this experience, but this is the potential reality that we face again this year,” said Jeff Rupert, director of the Office of Wildland Fire for the Interior Department, during his opening remarks at a Senate hearing on June 20.

The catastrophic 2018 wildfire season ravaged California, killing dozens of people, causing billions of dollars of damage and leaving towns unrecognizable. One of the worst fires was the Camp Fire, the state’s costliest and deadliest on record. Eighty-five people died in the Camp Fire, and it burned most of the town of Paradise to the ground. The other was the Mendocino Complex Fire, which was California’s largest on record, destroying more than 700 square miles of land.

Sand Fire in Yolo County, California on June 9, 2019.

“So it’s difficult for me to sit here this morning and say that a challenging year is ahead of us because the wildfires that we’re now experiencing are consistently more destructive than they’ve ever been,” Rupert added.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is forecasting a significant, large fire potential along the West Coast during the heart of the fire season in August and September.

Rupert, as well as Shawna Legarza, the director of fire aviation and management for the U.S. Forest Service, spoke before the committee about how the federal government and Congress plan to manage potential threats from the upcoming wildfire season.

“We know that our predictive services is showing that it’s going to start to increase, that we could have a very significant fire year again,” Legarza said during her opening statement. “This year in California and the Pacific Northwest, all those grasses are going to be drying out from the heavy rains and snowpack, and with that will come large fires. So we must continue to be prepared.”

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska also spoke, noting the recent wildfires across the country, including in her state as well as Arizona. She believes the increase in wildfires over the past few years can be blamed on climate change, unhealthy landscapes that are overstocked with “excess fuels,” and disease and insect outbreaks which leave trees that are “ready to ignite just like a matchstick.”

During her opening remarks, Murkowski said, “Some observers believe the stage is set for fire activity similar to the indescribable damage and staggering loss of life that we saw last year in northern California.” In addition to the loss of life and property, fires can degrade air quality, making it difficult for people to breathe, especially those with heart or lung conditions.

SONAR Critical Events: Ongoing wildfire risk areas shaded in yellow, as of June 21, 2019.

Some scientists believe that devastating fire seasons could be the rule rather than the exception in the decades to come if climate change leads to increased temperatures and reduced rainfall – ideal conditions for large, destructive wildfires. Over the next 25 years, the National Climate Assessment predicts the area burned by wildfires could double nationwide as a result. By the end of the century, models project the burned area in North America could increase two to 5.5 times.

The Sand Fire in Yolo County, California started on June 8 and lasted a week, burning around 2,500 acres of land. The Woodbury Fire also began on June 8, just east of Phoenix, Arizona, and continues to burn. As of this morning, June 21, it covers nearly 65,000 acres and is 42 percent contained, according to InciWeb. Other smaller wildfires are still burning across the western U.S.

Because of ongoing hot and very dry conditions, in addition to strong winds, wildfires may spread quickly and new ones could easily be sparked. The National Weather Service (NWS) has issued Red Flag Warnings across the region, including the Sacramento, Phoenix, Albuquerque and Santa Fe metro areas. Other areas may be added in the coming days and weeks.

Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.