Wednesday, August 15News That Matters

Wildfires continue to char California, but one is in a destructive league of its own

Two small blazes burning through Northern California have grown at breathtaking speed to form a massive inferno, quickly becoming the state’s largest active wildfire and setting a new mark for destruction.

The twin wildfires, collectively known as the Mendocino Complex Fire, have together more than doubled in size in the past four days and burned through 283,800 acres, or 443 square miles, of parched land — an area almost the size of Los Angeles. By Monday, it had become the largest wildfire in California in nine decades, surpassing the Thomas Fire that burned nearly 282,000 acres of land in December 2017 in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and the Cedar Fire that killed 15 people in 2003 in San Diego County.

As wildfires ravaged the Golden State, President Trump weighed in with tweets that puzzled fire experts and seemed to point fingers, not at the toll of climate change, but at California’s environmental laws and use of water resources.

As of Monday, the Mendocino Complex Fire shows little sign of slowing. Fueled by low humidity, triple-digit temperatures and winds blowing across wide swaths of tinder-dry vegetation, the conflagration has expanded to three counties, surrounded a river and parts of neighboring reservoirs, and destroyed and damaged nearly 170 homes and other structures.

“There’s some challenges that firefighters are facing near the fire and in the area of the fire. We have strong, erratic winds, and what that’s doing is blowing embers, and it’s spreading the fire,” Capt. Thanh Nguyen, who’s acting as spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said Monday. “You got steep terrain that makes it difficult for firefighters.”

Typically, temperatures dip and humidity rises overnight, giving crews a window to slow the fires’ spread. But Nguyen said these have not happened in the affected areas.

[As wildfires rage, California frets over a future of greater perils and higher costs]

The Mendocino Complex Fire began a little more than a week ago with two neighboring fires burning through 9,500 acres of land, then rapidly spreading — at one point, by nearly 30,000 acres within hours. The two fires have not merged, but officials are counting them as one.

The Ranch Fire, the bigger of the two blazes, has continued to grow in multiple directions, threatening communities in its path, according to Cal Fire. It has burned through 235,000 acres.

The smaller River Fire is more contained and grew by a few thousand acres over the weekend.

Firefighters are unlikely to see some respite. Temperatures will slightly dip to the low 90s and high 80s this week, but no rain is in the forecast.

“We’re experiencing the same thing every day, which is our afternoon winds and high winds in the area,” said Tricia Austin, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire. “Everything is still dry.”

Alex Schenck moves flaming pallets while fighting to save his home as the Ranch Fire rages near Clearlake Oaks, Calif., on Saturday. The Ranch Fire is part of the fast-growing Mendocino Complex Fire. (Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images)

Seventeen wildfires are burning up and down California.

In the Redding area, the Carr Fire, which is now 45 percent contained, has charred more than 163,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. At least seven people have died in the Carr Fire, including two firefighters and a woman and her two great-grandchildren. The latest victim is a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. employee who was killed on Saturday. A spokeswoman for the utility company said the employee, Jairus Ayeta, “suffered a fatal injury from a vehicle accident” while working in a remote area on hazardous terrain.

In one tweet, Trump said the wildfires are worsened by “bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized.”

[‘Grandpa, come get me’: A 5-year-old boy’s last moments before Carr Fire engulfed family’s home]

“It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean,” the president tweeted. “Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!”

Trump also tweeted that California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) “must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North” instead of “foolishly” diverting them into the Pacific Ocean.

“Can be used for fires, farming and everything else,” the president tweeted. “Think of California with plenty of Water — Nice!”

Several fire experts, however, said the comments don’t address the main factor in fire severity: human-caused climate change.

“Extreme droughts and high winds are increasing as climate is warming,” said Monica Turner, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has spent three decades researching fires at Yellowstone National Park. “That’s the ultimate driver behind what’s happening in California.”

A 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that climate change was responsible for more than half of the documented increases in fuel aridity in western forests and had doubled the amount of land burned since 1984.

John Abatzoglou, a University of Idaho climatologist who was the lead author on that study, called the president’s statement “confusing, if not completely incoherent.”

Water management is a long-standing issue in California. The diversion of water away from rivers and into agricultural lands has allowed the state’s farmers to flourish, but it also has destroyed critical habitat for salmon and other species. Water diversion also contributes to increased salinity of delta ecosystems. In July, California’s State Water Resources Control Board released a draft plan for an important watershed in the northern part of the state that would limit the amount of water used for agriculture.

[Carr Fire death toll climbs to six as crews ‘gain some ground’ against massive blaze]

But that’s “a totally separate issue” from fire management, said William Stewart, a forestry specialist at the University of California at Berkeley. The rivers and lakes from which fire crews get water to drop on fires are full. “There’s no shortage of water for firefighting.”

Contrary to the president’s comments, water diversion refers to the redirection of water for agricultural purposes. Rivers naturally flow into the ocean.

This part of Trump’s tweet — “Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!” — seems to refer to the practice of thinning, by which land managers selectively cut down certain trees to improve the overall health of a forest.

Thinning can help reduce fire severity by limiting fuel, Stewart said, but the president’s tweet misses important nuance. In a report published in the journal BioScience in January, Stewart and his colleagues found that thinning happens more frequently on private land — which falls under California’s jurisdiction — than on federal land, which is managed by the Forest Service. In addition, “the rates of mortality from fire, insects, and disease are about three times as high on national forest lands as they are on private lands regulated under California’s strict environmental laws,” he said.

Responding to the president’s tweets, Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler said the state has plenty of water to fight wildfires.

“Let’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires,” he said.

Evan Westrup, Brown’s spokesman, said the president’s tweets do not “merit a response.”

Brown’s office announced Saturday that the White House has approved a request for a presidential major disaster declaration that would help fire victims in Shasta County, which has been ravaged by the Carr Fire. The declaration would provide federal assistance, such as housing and food aid, counseling and medical services.

More than 14,000 personnel from California and elsewhere in the country are fighting wildfires across the state.

The Pentagon announced Monday that it will send about 200 soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to help with the firefighting efforts. The troops will be trained and will undergo a certification process before they are deployed to California next weekend. They will work with experienced civilian firefighters, U.S. military officials said.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

Read more:

How humans have made wildfires worse

The grim scope of 2017’s California wildfire season is now clear. The danger’s not over.

A man told authorities he started a fire to grill his food. He’s now facing 141 counts of arson.

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