Tens of thousands of people evacuated overnight Tuesday after a massive wildfire roared through Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles.
Southern California Wildfires
Fanned by cold, fierce Santa Ana winds and fueled by dead trees and dry brush, wildfires raced across Southern California communities Tuesday, burning through thousands of acres from Ventura to San Bernardino counties and likely destroying far more than 200 homes.
The fires forced mass evacuations that clogged area freeways from the north and south, east and west, and the conditions are expected to remain dangerous through Thursday.
California once again was under siege in a now all-too-familiar 2017 battle with walls of flames.
Firefighters battled at least six fast-moving blazes, the largest and most erratic in Ventura County, which by day’s end consumed 50,500 acres and destroyed at least 150 confirmed homes, with officials expecting to announce a much larger total Wednesday. Sylmar’s Creek fire began early Tuesday and hopscotched through the canyons of the east San Fernando Valley.
At some points, the fire even jumped the 210 Freeway and pressed down on the area’s rural equestrian neighborhoods. Two Los Angeles County firefighters faced critical injuries while battling the blaze. Meanwhile, evacuation orders were underway after a fire broke later in the day near Cal State San Bernardino. And Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
But even before the start of this week’s fires, this year was going down as the most destructive wildfire season in California history, state officials said.
From Jan. 1 to Dec. 3, there were 6,762 fires that destroyed 505,391 acres. That’s 43 percent more events for the same time period last year, when 244,297 acres were destroyed, according to Cal Fire.
“Fuel. Ignition. Meteorology. Each component of the formula are off the charts this year,” says Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “When all three elements in the equation are at supersize, you’re ready for apocalyptic conditions.
The rains of late 2016 and early 2017 did little to quench the parched California landscape, Patzert and others said. In addition, more people live in homes built in the pathway of the Santa Ana winds, which are just as fierce in December as they are September, he adds.
“It could be several years and a lot of precipitation to overcome the droughts,” said Cal Fire Capt. Lucas Spelman, a spokesman for the agency. “Right now with the last five to six years being in a drought, and then getting some rain this winter, it didn’t change much of the vegetation.”
If anything, the rains produced some new grass that led to more damage, Spelman added.
“We haven’t gotten in the business of resurrecting dead vegetation,” Spelman said. “The rain added some grasses and allowed the fire to travel much quicker to the more dense areas of brush. Even though we had a good winter as far as precipitation, as far as firefighters we were still very much afraid this year was going to be like this.”
This year was also more destructive. The structural losses are massive. The Tubbs and Nuns fires, both in October and both in Sonoma County, destroyed almost 7,000 structures and caused 24 deaths.
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Though San Diego’s Cedar Fire in 2003 destroyed 273,246 acres, 2,820 structures were destroyed, according to CalFire figures.
The difference between then and now is population, dense housing and location, Patzert and Spelman noted.
“In the ever-expanding search for affordable housing, we’re building in fire corridors that historically we were not,” Patzert conveys of burgeoning housing developments in the Santa Clarita River Valley, for example, which includes the communities of Santa Paula, Fillmore and Piru.
“There are too many people living in risky areas,” he added.
Spelman said firefighters used to see years when there were few wildfires.
“Now every year, it’s starting to be a carbon copy of the year before,” Spelman said. Further adding that more homes, neighborhoods and even cities are destroyed.
His agency sees 95 % of all wildland fires are due to humans. Spelman adds, while only 5 % are natural.
“Every year, we say we’re really having a horrible fire season. We’ve said over the years, this might be the worst fire season,” he adds. But 2017 is different.
“It definitely went down as the most destructive in California’s history,” he said.
Meanwhile, most of Southern California, including the burn areas, are under both a high wind and red flag warning, according to the National Weather Service. The high wind warning might expire Tuesday night. But the red flag warning will remain in place until Thursday night, according to weather experts.