From NPR: Why Fires Are Becoming California's New Reality
Wildfires Exacerbate Chronic Homelessness In Northern California
The destructive wildfires in Southern California are capping one of the worst fire seasons on record in the state. They come less than two months after thousands of homes burned and more than 40 people were killed by fires in Northern California. Climatologists warn that this is the new reality for the region, where wildfires are occurring year-round.
Los Angeles residents Neil Fazzari and his wife, Kirsten, are stunned to see such a large wildfire this late in the year. "It was a shock this morning when our neighbors knocked on our door," Kirsten said.
"I thought it was over; I thought that that season was over," Neil adds.
The couple wiped a thick layer of ash off the windshield of their SUV and pointed up at their street where they evacuated.
Their neighborhood in LA's Sepulveda Pass, a brush-covered canyon on the city's western edge, is adjacent to the nation's busiest freeway and just below the famous Getty Museum. It's now full of firetrucks and dense with smoke.
The immediate culprit of the five major fires burning in Southern California right now is the Santa Ana winds: the hurricane-force gusts that flow off the Mojave Desert and ignite infernos from things like toppled power lines or carelessly tossed cigarette butts.
It's not unusual to get Santa Anas this late. It's just that by now Southern California's rainy season should have started.
UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain says nothing can be considered typical anymore.
"This year, we experienced our record warmest summer," he says, "and in some places record temperatures in the autumn as well."
There is also a high-pressure ridge stuck out over the Pacific Ocean that's deflecting storms.
Swain's research is showing that these high pressure systems are growing in frequency as a result of the warming Pacific — one reason California is getting hotter and drier, with drier brush and fuels and longer fire seasons.
"It's starting to appear that the likelihood of seeing these sorts of events is increasing," he says.
The open question now is how long this high pressure area sits — if it's more than just a few weeks, much of Southern California could fall back into extreme drought. Forecasters say there is also a good chance this ridge could settle in and cause a prolonged dry spell lasting several weeks from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Baja, Calif.
In Southern California, drought and wildfires are a fixture of daily life — especially in Los Angeles, with its chaparral-covered canyons and vast open spaces between hilly neighborhoods.
Fire agencies here are considered some of the best in the world at knocking down urban brush and wild land fires before they consume neighborhoods.
But in extraordinary conditions like these, with the fires burning so erratically, it's not even safe for firefighters to try to protect homes at times, let alone try to contain the flames. That's why you hear Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas constantly pleading with the public to pack go-bags, and heed all evacuation warnings.
"The people in this area and all areas of the city that have a brush fire threat, need to continually monitor the media," he warns.
Wednesday night, millions of cellphones buzzed across Los Angeles County with an emergency alert warning of extreme fire danger.
This new norm is unsettling for people like the Fazzaris, who moved here from New York a few years ago.
They, too, were prepared and ready to leave. But Neil says he's second-guessing living in a city where you have to have an emergency kit packed at all times — whether it's for fires, floods or earthquakes.
"I don't really care for that," he says. "I don't like that so much. I'm kind of over the wildfire thing, to be quite honest."
Southern California Fires Surpass 140,000 Acres As Santa Ana Winds Drive Flames
Wildfires Exacerbate Chronic Homelessness In Northern California December 6, 20172:36 PM ET By Samantha Raphelson
Two months ago raging wildfires in Northern California destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, intensifying an already chronic homelessness problem in the city of Santa Rosa.
The city lost 3,000 homes – 5 percent of its total housing stock – in the Tubbs fire, the largest blaze to sweep through the area in October. Price gouging is creating a second wave of homelessness as exorbitant rents keep people from finding new housing in the wake of the fires, says Jennielynn Holmes, senior director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa. Holmes says the result could be more devastating than the housing crisis that precipitated the Great Recession.
"We're kind of seeing the trend of what happened with the 2008 foreclosure crisis," she tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "We saw people entering homelessness for the first time ever after that, and we're predicting that to happen in the next few months here. And unfortunately, it seems like it's happening a little faster than it did with the 2008 foreclosure crisis."
Holmes says that for this group of people, "their unit didn't burn, but because of the fire and this new market, it is completely taking them offline," adding that landlords whose homes burned are evicting tenants from rental units.
Between September and mid-October, the typical asking price on the rental market jumped by 36 percent in Sonoma and 23 percent in Napa, according to an analysis by rental site Zillow. The median monthly rent in Santa Rosa grew to $2,982 in the days after the fire.
The dwindling supply of affordable housing in the city of more than 160,000 is affecting people across the socioeconomic spectrum, Holmes says, but the situation is particularly dire for people who were already homeless. Before the fires, Santa Rosa only had a less than 1 percent vacancy rate, and the city was struggling to move nearly 3,000 homeless people out of tent encampments on the streets.
"Before the fire there wasn't a lot of light being cast on our homeless situation," Fernando Gomez, a 24-year-old resident who was displaced before the fires, told the Huffington Post last month. "I feel like it's getting a lot of media attention because of those displaced [by the fires], and I just want people to realize: There were a lot of people displaced before that."
There is also a growing concern that price gouging will create more problems for the long-term homeless population, as people with higher incomes enter the rental market and lower-income people are pushed out, Holmes says.
But property owners say they aren't purposely taking advantage of vulnerable residents.
"People don't realize that we're responding to insurance companies desperately trying to accommodate clients who need a place to live," Randy Knight, chief executive of 5StarVR.com, a vacation rental company, told the Los Angeles Times.
Regardless of intent, the rent uptick is exacerbating the income gap in Sonoma County, where the median home price is more than $600,000, more than double the national average. People who moved to Sonoma County to dodge million-dollar home prices in San Francisco may now be priced out.
"Because of that difference, in the last few years, a lot of people who could not afford to live in San Francisco or Santa Clara, they move farther north, out to counties like Sonoma," Oscar Wei, a senior economist at the California Association of Realtors, told the Los Angeles Times in October.
New data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development show that the homeless rate rose slightly this year for the first time since 2010, due to a spike in homelessness in cities along the West Coast, including Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego and Sacramento. The data indicate a severe shortage of affordable housing is causing the homelessness upsurge in these cities.
In Santa Rosa, Holmes says the wildfires have emboldened advocates to aggressively step up efforts to combat homelessness from all angles.
"We have these high priority issues for our community prior to the fire on October 7th. Then the fires hit October 8th, and everything is magnified," she says. "And what's really important is ... we don't just address the people who were displaced directly by the fire in our rebuilding efforts."
What's The Leading Cause Of Wildfires In The U.S.? Humans
Southern California Fires Surpass 140,000 Acres As Santa Ana Winds Drive Flames December 7, 20175:41 AM ET By Richard Gonzales, Bill Chappell, & Scott Neuman
Driven by fierce Santa Ana winds, four intense fires near Los Angeles grew to engulf more than 115,000 acres Thursday, and officials say residents should continue to expect dangerous fire conditions, as both strong winds and very dry conditions persist.
"Until the wind stops blowing, there's really not a lot we can do as far as controlling the perimeter," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said as quoted by the Los Angeles Times. "This is a fight we're going to be fighting probably for a couple of weeks."
Lorenzen has more than 2500 firefighters battling the largest blaze, the Thomas Fire, which has exploded to 115,000 acres since it was started earlier this week. Containment of that fire is now at five percent.
Another 3,000 firefighters have been working to control the other fires in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties.
The Lilac Fire in San Diego county started Thursday morning around 11:15 a.m. PT and grew to 3,000 acres by mid-afternoon. The fire is concentrated in a rural part of northern San Diego county near Camp Pendleton. There is a concerted effort to evacuate not just people, but also horses and livestock, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The San Diego county fire has destroyed 20 structures and threaten 2,000 more.
The Creek Fire in the San Fernando Valley has burned more than 15,000 acres and is 20 percent contained. The smaller Rye Fire to the north has scorched 7,000 acres and is 25 percent contained.
Until now, there are no known human casualties directly related to the many fires. However, a woman was found dead early Thursday morning after a car crash in an area evacuated for the Thomas Fire in Ventura County. The woman's name has not been released and the incident is still being investigated.
On Thursday morning, the intense heat of the Thomas fire was seen generating a pyrocumulus or flammagenitus cloud — the towering mushroom clouds that sometimes result from volcanic eruptions and other extreme activities.
Forecasters had predicted wind gusts of up to 80 mph, saying that this week would bring the worst of the seasonal Santa Ana winds. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had issued a dire "purple" warning last night, referring to the only color above red on the wind scale. But that forecast has since been downgraded to a red alert.
"New and smaller fires erupted this morning. A three-acre vegetation fire was quickly extinguished in Riverside County before it was able to spread to nearby businesses," Alex Cohen reports from member station KPCC. "In the city of Anaheim, another blaze damaged four units at a commercial building."
Cohen adds, "Roughly 200 firefighters were sent to the scene of a fire along the coast in Malibu - it was contained in an hour."
California Wildfires: Tell Us Your Story
What's The Leading Cause Of Wildfires In The U.S.? Humans February 27, 2017 3:01 PM ET By Christopher Joyce
Wildfires can start when lightning strikes or when someone fails to put out a campfire. New research shows that people start a lot more fires than lightning does — so much so that people are drastically altering wildfire in America.
Fire ecologist Melissa Forder says about 60 percent of fires in national parks are caused by humans: "intentionally set fires, buildings burning and spreading into the forest, smoking, equipment malfunctions and campfires."
But the average for all forests is even higher. The latest research shows that nationwide, humans cause more than 8 in 10 — 84 percent.
"We are playing a really substantial role in shifting fire around," says fire ecologist Jennifer Balch at the University of Colorado. Balch looked at the big picture, going through records of 1.5 million wildfires over a 21-year period. She says people are starting fires where and when nature normally doesn't — at times when forests are often too wet to burn easily or at places and times when lightning isn't common.
As a result, Balch says, not only are people causing the vast majority of wildfires, they're also extending the normal fire season around the country by three months.
"I think acknowledging that fact is really important," she says, "particularly right now when we have evidence that climate is changing, and climate is warming, and that fires are increasing in size and the fire season is increasing."
You can see evidence of that along Skyline Drive in Virginia. The view offers an Appalachian panorama — rolling mountains carpeted in deep oak and pine forests. But it's not all green, as Forder points out from the side of the highway at Two-Mile Run Overlook at Shenandoah National Park. Right below stands a grove of blackened trees; a few patches of green needles on surviving pines are the only green.
"We can see where it started," she says. "That's Rocky Mount right there." The mountain is the namesake for the Rocky Mount fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres last year.
The park's fire manager, Jeff Koenig, ran the firefighting teams that spent almost two weeks stopping it.
"We were probably 10-plus days without rain" before the fire, he says, "so you know it was expected. It was that time of year when you can expect fire activity."
It was April, and spring and fall are when forests in the east usually burn, explains Forder, who also is with the National Park Service. "To have a fire," she says, "you need the fuel, which is available each spring and fall with the leaf litter, which is constantly here, and the ignition source, and then weather conditions that would allow the fire to burn."
That ignition source at Rocky Mount is thought to have been people. There was no lightning at the time; lightning fires happen more during summer storms.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Balch says there is a solution: Ironically, it means starting more fires.
Prescribed fires are intentionally lit — they burn off leaf litter and underbrush that would otherwise fuel bigger wildfires. Controlled fires also help germinate the seeds of many tree species. But people don't like them nearby; they're smoky and sometime get loose. "Now the question is, can we live with the amount of prescribed fires that we need in ecosystems?" she says. "Can we live with the smoke that comes off those fires?"
The research, she says, suggests that the alternative is a year-round season of bigger, more damaging fires.