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Why California escaped another destructive fire season

Despite months of warnings fueled by extreme heat and drought conditions, California’s deadly fire season ended with a remarkably small area burned, with just 362,403 acres burned in 2022, compared to more than 2.5 million acres the previous year.

Standing in a field of dry, brown grass in Napa this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom and several state officials gathered to mark what they described as “the end of wildfire season” in most of California, attributing the relatively small year-round acreage to huge investments in forest health and resilience projects and an expansion of the state’s firefighting fleet.

But while the worst of the season may be behind us, experts noted that the remarkably reduced fire activity is likely less a factor of strategy than luck.

“We’ve been very lucky this year,” said Park Williams, associate professor of geography at UCLA. “At the end of June the dice were stacked very heavily towards the big fires because things were very dry and there was a risk of big heat waves in the summer, and in fact we actually had a really big heat wave this summer in September. But it coincided with some really timely and well-placed torrential downpours. »

Indeed, two of the biggest fires of the year – the McKinney Fire in Siskiyou County and the Fairview Fire in Riverside County – both smoldered after torrential rains arrived, including the unusual appearance of a tropical storm in the case of the Fairview fire, which contributed to considerably strengthening its containment.

“Rainfall was coming just when it was needed most,” Williams said. “Things were getting so parched with these heat waves, and then at some kind of peak drought, all of a sudden the skies opened up and soaked it all up, and that happened a couple of times.”

But while the area this year was relatively small, the 2022 fire season was also much deadlier than last year, with nine deaths, all civilians, compared to three firefighter deaths in 2021. Some of the The deadliest fires, including the McKinney and Fairview fires, burned with significant speed fueled by dry vegetation, leaving people little time to escape.

This year’s fires were also destructive: By the end of its 10-day run in September, the factory fire in Siskiyou County had leveled the entire neighborhood from Lincoln Heights to Weed. The McKinney and Oak fires in Mariposa County each destroyed nearly 200 structures, while the Coastal fire in Orange County in May claimed at least 20 homes.

Still, some efforts on the ground seem to be working. The state responded to 7,329 fires this year — about 200 more than the same time last year — despite significantly fewer acres burned, indicating crews were putting out fires faster or stopping them earlier. that they do not become too important.

The largest fire of the year, the 77,000-acre Mosquito Fire in Placer and El Dorado counties, was much smaller than the largest fire of 2021, the 963,000-acre Dixie Fire .

Officials said several factors contributed to the overall tamer season, including a $2.8 billion investment in wildfire resilience projects over the past two years for forest management work, burns conducted and community sensitization.

“Last year, really, the tremendous amount of combined proactive effort that was put in by state, local, tribal, and federal agencies here in California really resulted in less damaging and less destructive fire impacts,” said Mark, director of the California Office of Emergency Services. Ghilarducci said at the press conference. “Although some of that was obviously the result of the weather, maybe a bit of luck, that sustained investment… has clearly made a difference this year.”

Joe Tyler, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the agency has achieved more than 100,000 acres of fuel reduction each year since 2019, including about 20,000 acres in the past two months. only. This work was completed by local, federal, tribal and private partners, he said.

California has also made significant investments in air support, including a dozen new Firehawk helicopters that can carry more water than previous Cal Fire fleets and perform night missions, officials said. Six private fixed-wing aircraft hired on short-term contracts also flew more than 2,700 hours of firefighting missions across the state this year.

“We realize we’re not out of the woods, so we’re not here with signs of ‘mission accomplished’ in any way,” Newsom said, “but we’re here to highlight the work that has been done this year.”

The governor added that the state has hired an additional 1,350 firefighters, allowing staffing to peak as early as June.

Williams warned that officials “must be very careful not to take credit for the luck the weather brings, because next year the dice are once again loaded for a very big fire season, and [they] didn’t cover all of California’s forests in a year.

He added that other states under different management have been similarly lucky this year, including Nevada and Arizona, which also avoided extreme fire seasons despite high heat and other conditions introducing them to the fire. fire.

But Scott Stephens, a fire science professor at UC Berkeley, said he gives Cal Fire and other state agencies credit for some of their programs.

“Some of the wildfires that started this year hit some of their fuel-treated areas, and they were able to take a more effective position in some of those areas,” he said. “It was by no means the majority of the fires, but some… did actually reach those areas, and the proactive work, I think, is paying off in that regard.”

However, Stephens also noted that the state hasn’t seen any major dry lightning events this year, such as those that helped fuel hundreds of simultaneous fires in 2020 and 2021, and benefited from some rainfall. . He said it’s important to stay alert even in the face of improvements.

“There are really only two fire issues in the state that are paramount,” he said. “The first is to better prepare people who live in fire-prone areas for the inevitability of fires, and the second is to better prepare our ecosystem for fires, climate change, bark beetles and drought. … If we don’t do those two things at really meaningful levels, we’ll never get out of this problem.

This week, officials remained optimistic about the outlook and pointed to investments in new technologies aimed at helping detect and respond to fires earlier, including advanced aircraft known as FIRIS, or Fire Integrated Real Time. Intelligence System, and the establishment of intelligence on forest fire threats. information sharing center co-operated by Cal Fire and Cal OES.

The state also created a Community Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation Division this year to help communities better prepare for wildfires, Ghilarducci said. Investments in mitigation resources and home reinforcements included $100 million in community infrastructure grants and $25 million in outreach to highly vulnerable communities.

Newsom noted that the state will receive seven new C-130 firefighting aircraft from the federal government next year as part of a 20-year memorandum of understanding for shared management of California’s forests and rangelands. . About 57% of California’s forest land is owned by the federal government.

Yet he also acknowledged that his four years as governor were marked by climate volatility. Although 2022 and 2019 were relatively mild fire years, 2020 marked the state’s worst fire season on record, when more than 4 million acres burned.

“I expect nothing but extremes: extreme heat, extreme drought, extreme weather, extreme polar extremes. The norm has been this kind of back and forth,” he said. “I think we’re inclined to overestimate how much we’ve done well in a year like this, but I don’t want to underestimate the fact that it’s been a flywheel either.”

California Daily Newspapers

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