California faced historically large wildfires
“California is burning.” These stark words summarized the feelings of any who saw the horrifying pictures of destroyed homes and forests engulfed in flames. In September, three separate fires broke out in Butte, Napa, Sonoma and Lake Counties, as well as Sierra National Forest. These blazes were some of the worst in California history.
2015 and 2016 marked the fourth year of California’s historic drought. The lack of rainfall left large swaths of Northern California dry enough to start fires. The fire season of 2015 had been particularly chaotic.
Daniel Berlant, Cal-Fire’s chief information officer, reported they had responded to over 16,000 separate instances during that season. In addition to a greater number of fires, the flames were larger and more difficult to control. Larger and more frequent fires put a strain on fire departments’ ability to respond adequately to contain them.
This all came to a head when three separate fires grew out of control on Friday, Sept. 11. The Butte, Valley and Sierra fires raged across hundreds of acres of dry forest and brush. The Sierra fire, as of Sept. 9, 2015, was larger than the entire area of San Francisco, at 140,000 acres. As of Monday, Sept. 14, the Valley fire had burned 62,000 acres, and the Butte fire had destroyed over 71,000 acres.
In an attempt to control the fires, firefighters came from across Northern California. Even firefighters from the Los Angeles Fire Department were called up to aid local efforts.
Over 7,000 fire officials worked to contain the fires. Despite the influx of firefighters, the fires were not controlled easily.
The Sierra fire was announced to be 40 percent contained on Sept. 14. The Butte fire was similarly contained at 35 percent. Unfortunately, the Valley fire was particularly difficult to control, at only 10 percent containment in late September.
The effect of the fires was drastic. The LA Times reported that the Valley and Butte fires had displaced 23,000 people, destroyed over 700 homes and injured four fire officials. There had been one confirmed death from the fires as of September 2015. The Butte fire caused the evacuation of 6,000 homes. There were evacuation orders in Lake, Sonoma and Lake Counties. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.
By the end of 2015, CAL FIRE reported that 6,337 fires had started, which burned 307,598 acres, more than 1,000 square kilometers.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported that 2015 was the worst fire season since 2011, nationally.
It did not help that natural factors exacerbated the fires. No major wind events occurred to aid the officials in battling the blazes. The lack of rainfall made natural water resources for firefighters to use overwhelmingly limited.
As Northern California was engulfed in flames, officials warned that Southern California was no safer. They predicted that the seasonal Santa Ana winds would start fires in Southern California. The Santa Ana winds are hot and dry winds that blow up from Arizona and Nevada. These winds have contributed to fires in the southern part of the state in the past, and officials warned that the winds could have ignited fires in Southern California. One shudders at the thought of raging fires across both ends of the state.
Clearly nature has the capability to increase the destruction the fires brought, but there was also a glimmer of hope from nature. Climatologists reported that 2015’s El Niño rains could have been some of the largest on record. A historic amount of rainfall was exactly what the state needed to put out historically large wildfires and end the historically long drought.
Unfortunately, not all believed that the rain helped. Some scientists worried that the large amounts of moisture the pressure front would carry might lead to El Niño dumping all of its rain in the Pacific rather than the state itself. The existence of the Blob, an area of abnormally warm water travelling south through ocean currents, may have prevented El Niño from hitting the state.
While El Niño this year was stronger than average, it was not as powerful as scientists had hoped. This was somewhat expected, as the level of rainfall required to end the drought and make up for the lack of rainfall would have had to have been unprecedented.
Through the wildfires’ destruction, people still had reason to hope. Ann Mazzaferro ‘10, a Pacific alumna who resided in Calaveras County during the fires, reported that people had been doing whatever they could to help those in need. She said at the time: “…We’re asking each other, ‘How are you? Are you safe? What do you need?’ Donations have been coming in from all over the state, everything from water, food, clothing and necessities to handmade cards to thank firefighters. People are throwing open their doors to give people a place to stay and working endless hours in kitchens to feed people. We have entire units of volunteers driving throughout the county with animal trailers to rescue and evacuate livestock, horses and pets. There really is no gift too small — I know people who work as face-painters and henna artists who are going to evacuation shelters to paint kids’ faces and bring them a smile. …People here are tough, honest, loving and generous. They will survive this, and we’ll all be stronger for it.” No words can describe the bravery and hard work the firefighters displayed in their battles against the wildfires and the volunteers displayed in the aftermath.
Here in Stockton, the effects of the fires were deeply felt. Many members of the community know people who live near the fires or were evacuated. Physically, we saw the effects as well. Plumes of smoke engulfed the sky the weekend of the original publication of this article. Late that Friday night, ash drifted to the ground.
“This kind of feels like the apocalypse is about to happen,” said one Pacific student, Jason Wong ‘17. A four-year drought, fires the size of major metropolitan cities, ash falling like snow, thousands of people displaced: At the time, Wong’s statement did not seem like much of an exaggeration.
Looking toward the future, this reporter commented: “Here’s hoping the plumes of smoke will turn into water-filled clouds and the ashes into raindrops, and that the sun will soon rise over a California that has endured the natural disasters we currently face.”
Luckily, rain brought salvation, and the fires were extinguished.