The wildfire that was raging in
the Santa Barbara mountains, engulfing homes, and destroying virtually
everything in its path, is an ominous sign that we are knee deep in a very
serious drought problem that does not seem to have any end in sight.
Raging along an 8,600-acre stretch
of coastline in the Santa Ynez Mountains, the 8-day-old Jesusita Fire has
destroyed approximately 77 homes with 22 damaged and forced the evacuation of
more than 30,000 people. It is an example of how dry shrub lands are so
prominent throughout California, which is enduring a third straight year of
drought conditions. If you drive along Foothill Road here in Santa Barbara you
will see that people are still building new homes in these dry areas. If this is
any indication, it certainly seems like we have the potential to see things get
a lot worse.
Large areas infested with
fire-prone weeds have taken over in many areas of Northern and Southern
California. When you mix this with a warming climate, drought, and an
ever-increasing population, you have a recipe for large fires. Recent rain
showers in Southern California may have helped in the short term, but the damp
grasslands have quickly dried out. This is the second year in a row that a big
fire has erupted in May along the California coast, which is normally a damp
time of the year for us.
The Santa Barbara Jesusita fire is
not what firefighters would characterize as a good omen. Flames threatened homes
this past Friday along a 5-mile front as columns of smoke billowed down from the
Santa Ynez Mountains. Most of the destroyed homes were in neighborhoods that are
situated in the foothills, on steep ridges, and in canyons above the northern
edge of Santa Barbara. Over 4,500 firefighters, 500 engines, 14 air tankers,
including a DC-10 jet airplane, and 15 helicopters have been battling the blaze
which is now close to 80 percent contained.
This fire comes less than six
months after another catastrophic fire burned through the upscale Santa Barbara
County community of Montecito. That fire, known as the Tea Fire, destroyed 130
homes, including several multimillion-dollar mansions, injured 25 and forced the
evacuation of 5,400 people. Like the current blaze, it erupted amid superheated
winds known as "Sundowners" as they blew north to south at dusk. It was the
first in a series of big fires in one week that devoured hundreds of homes and
thousands of acres in Southern California.
There is no way of determining
from the latest Santa Barbara fire whether this year will be as bad as last
year, but the long-term outlook is grim. Fire seasons have been arriving much
earlier then in the past and seem to be more intense as well. If we continue to
foolishly keep building in areas that are getting drier and hotter, the danger
of catastrophic fire such as what we have witnessed in the last week is going to
Scientists predict that the biggest factor in California,
climate change, will contribute to an alarming, increasing trend in fire
frequency between now and 2085. Acreage burned by fires is expected to increase
between fifty-seven and one hundred sixty-nine percent according to statistical
models focusing on the relationship between fires and climate conditions in
California. Research by the U.S. Forest Service also has shown that the average
number of trees killed by fire has increased as a result of higher temperatures
and less snowmelt.
Fires in the contiguous United
States and Alaska release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year
according to researchers. That amounts to 4 to 6 percent of the nation's total
carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning - with the fires contributing
to global warming, which in turn is fueling more fires.
I personally want to send out my
condolences to all the people affected by the Jesusita Fire. May you bounce back