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Concern for Destructive Fires, Growing Season Intensifies in California

Life is slowly returning to Thousand Oaks and Malibu. Weeks after the wind-driven Woolsey fire roared through the communities, green grasses are growing on the charred hills. Crews are repairing utilities. Residents are beginning to rebuild their homes.

Burning nearly 97,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, the fire that began Nov. 8 destroyed nearly 1,700 structures and killed three people. Almost 300,000 fled their homes.

Scorched Hills in Malibu with helicopter carrying water in the distance during the Woolsey Fire
Hills in Malibu Canyon, just days after the Woolsey Fire started. | Tori Edgar

Although the cause remains under investigation, climate-change scientists have long warned about the increasing dangers of such destructive blazes as fire season expanded from about five months to nearly all year.

“When I first started working down here about 15 or 20 years ago, you basically mostly had fire between May and June to about October-November,” said Malcolm North, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service and a professor at UC Davis. “Now we’re in a series where we literally get fires just about every month of the year. And, of course, particularly with this last year, we’re seeing fires into November and December. It really is a new kind of abnormal.”

In a look at California’s recent deadly firefights in Southern and Northern California, where flames virtually eliminated the town of Paradise, killing 85 people, SoCal Connected examines the phenomenon with dramatic footage of the Woolsey blaze. The Jan. 15 program examines the possible reasons for the rise in the infernos across the state, from climate change-fueled drought, to increased humans living in housing developments in high-prone burn areas, to the financial burden placed on the state to fight and prevent them.

“A few years back we did a pretty big study and quite a few papers came out about it, focused on the impacts of climate change in the Los Angeles region,” said UCLA Professor Alex Hall, director of its Center for Climate Science.

The studies looked at the impact of global warming and changes in heat extremes in the region, as well as changes in snow in the mountains and the average rainfall. They predicted increases in the number of extremely hot days by mid-century and looked at how that might affect wildfire, Hall said.

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“We found that if no measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally over the remainder of the 21st Century there would be huge increases in heat extremes,” Hall said. “We projected that there would be an increase in (the) area burned in Southern California by roughly a factor of two. So, we projected a big change in wildfire risk.”
Despite that, residents who lost everything continue to build homes in areas scientists have determined are likely to burn. Controversial huge housing developments are set for the Yorba Linda hills and Tejon Ranch, areas deemed high-fire risk areas.

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Alexandra Syphon, chief scientist at Sage Underwriters, a homeowner’s wildfire insurance company, said experts have studied homes destroyed in fires to those that survived to understand why that occurs, including vegetation and building materials to land use planning. Consistently, she said, the “significant predictor of whether a house is going to be destroyed in fire is the location.”

Hills in Malibu Canyon, completely bare weeks after Woolsey Fire
What Malibu Canyon looks like two months after the Woolsey Fire. | Tori Edgar

“Some places are just more fire prone than others,” Syphon said. “You know there are certain places where winds will tunnel through and if a fire is ignited. You know Malibu Canyon. There are places in the Santa Monica Mountains for example where you look at a fire history map. And there’s one place that’s burned 14 times in 75 years and there’s another place not that far away that’s never burned...If you’re making a decision about where to place a house and you don’t want the house to be destroyed in a fire...it doesn’t make sense to put the house where there’s been 14 fires as opposed to a place where there hasn’t been one.”

In some wilderness areas, hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated to eliminate fuels. But, in some areas, such as the Sierra Nevada mountains, drought and bark beetles have killed so many trees, they wait as kindling for something to trigger a blaze, experts say. 

“I’m sure there are green trees out there, but you look out on a 30 to 40,000-acre landscape and there’s no green crowns that are visible,” North said. “That is a huge problem…You’re going to have those trees falling over and creating a “Jackstraw” effect of fuels on the ground, so that if you do get a fire there in the future, it’s going to be a really severe event.”

Experts say more studies and work needs to be done on the issue of California’s fires,  especially with climate-change. The recent Southern California blazes, swept by intense winds typically outside the fire season, were unprecedented.

 “There’s something new about the way that fire is behaving in California,” Hall said.  “So, we are collaborating with a really amazing team of people with expertise in ecology and fire behavior and fire management to understand really what the future of fire is for California.”

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