It’s been a hard few years for California, ecologically-speaking, as an increasing drought has challenged the state. In mid-January, the governor of California announced a state of emergency due to the severe drought conditions, and in April he reiterated that residents must do all they can to conserve water. Now, wildfires are taking their toll – particularly the King fire in El Dorado County.
California King Fire
Much of California’s rain usually falls during a few winter storms, and this surface water supply is bolstered by snowpack and groundwater. Recent times have been much drier than normal, and a few February and March rainstorms failed to break the hold of the drought.
The ongoing drought in California is bad news for the state’s wildlands: Nearly 5000 fires have burned this year, 1000 more than normal. Most recently, the dry and fire-prone conditions have been challenging for residents of Northern California. On Wednesday, September 24th, state fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean called the King Fire in El Dorado County “the highest priority fire in the nation.”
Since September 13th, the fire has kept over 7000 firefighters busy. Although it is forty percent contained, the coming dry and windy weather is expected to continue to assist the blaze for the time being.
The King fire has threatened 12,000 structures and burned over 92,000 acres, an area larger than Las Vegas. Nearly 70 structures have been destroyed. The fire is believed to be arson, and a 37-year-old man is accused of setting the fire. While there have been thousands of fires in California this year, many of them have remained relatively small. Why do some fires spread, while others do not?
The Presence of Dry Fuel Helps Move a Fire Along
The underlying environmental conditions are one of the reasons a fire in one location will spread, while others will not. In areas with dense, dry brush that’s been baked by the sun during months of low rainfall, it’s much easier for a fire to spread. However, those underlying fuel conditions now exist in areas across the entire state of California. What else is different?
Weather Changes Fire Patterns
Fires also spread due to the unique weather conditions in an area. Unlike the underlying climatic conditions that occur over the course of months and years, weather describes the more day-to-day conditions in an area. If a fire begins in an area that’s just experienced a heavy dew, or in a place where the wind is low, that can help contain a fire.
In the case of the King Fire, weather conditions have helped play a role in spreading the fire. With high southwest winds occur, the fire could continue to spread. However, if rain or heavy dew occurs, that will help contain the fire.
The Lay of the Land Helps Contain or Spread a Fire
Topography also helps change the pattern of a fire. A valley might contain wet spots that help dampen a fire. A canyon could funnel wind that provides oxygen to fuel the fire at the end of the canyon. Topography not only changes fire behavior, it also changes human behavior as well, making it more or less challenging to access and fight a fire.
People Help Manage the Fire’s Spread
Of course, the fourth factor in fire management is the presence of people. Some fires begin due to the presence of people – when we either accidentally or intentionally start fires.
On the other hand, however, people also notice fires – if a fire is far away from a place where people can easily see it, it may burn longer than if it ignites in an area close to a road or homes. Finally, people help manage a fire. Having firefighters on the ground allows people to actively manage a blaze. Firefighters use a number of management strategies to control a fire, from setting controlled burns to using water bombers to cutting trails to act as barriers between a fire and new fuel.
Wildfire: Predicting, Managing, and Understanding the Phenomenon
Wildfire is not predictable, but it is possible to understand something of what a fire could do, if you understand the underlying factors that contribute to fire management. For California, an underlying drought has made avoiding and managing fires all the more difficult this fire season.