Firefighters in Canyon Country, north of Los Angeles, California, US, in October 2019. Picture: REUTERS/GENE BLEVINS
Firefighters in Canyon Country, north of Los Angeles, California, US, in October 2019. Picture: REUTERS/GENE BLEVINS

More than 10,000 firefighters are battling unprecedented blazes in California. But that’s not enough, and the state is having a hard time finding more as flames rage across the western US and Canada.   

Twelve major wildfires are burning in the Golden State, forcing 31,000 people to flee their homes. Dry winds raking northern California helped the Caldor Fire east of Sacramento jump from 2,600ha acres Tuesday night to more than 26,000ha by Thursday morning, all but destroying the town of Grizzly Flats and hospitalising two people with serious injuries. 

In a bleak sign of climate change, the infernos are part of a dramatic wildfire season spanning the northern hemisphere, with flames engulfing Siberia, Greece and France, and smoke reaching the North Pole for the first time on record. There are about 100 large, active fires across the western US alone, so finding additional resources for California is difficult, and the firefighters deployed are exhausted. The pandemic has also made cross-border aid moire difficult.

“Our folks have been fighting fire for nearly two months now,” Tony Scardina, deputy regional forester with the US Forest Service, said during a press conference with California officials. “They’re tired, they’re fatigued, they’re digging lines for 16 hours a day for 14 days straight.”

Firefighters may get a break on Thursday, though, as the high winds that have been raking the state are forecast to ease by afternoon. It’s been a long time in coming. 

The western US has been gripped by a drought so severe that water from the Colorado River is set to be rationed for the first time, and southern Californians are being asked to conserve theirs. Western Canada, which typically sends crews to help with US wildfires, smashed the country’s all-time heat records this summer and areas from the Pacific coast to the other side of the Rocky Mountains are ablaze. 

About 6,500 federal firefighters have been deployed to California already, Scardina said.

California has tapped National Guard members from as far away as Louisiana and West Virginia to help. But the state isn’t able to pull in firefighters from other countries as easily as it once could, said Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. The coronavirus pandemic has also limited the ability of other countries to send help. And crews from Mexico are already battling Canada’s fires. 

“We’re having a very difficult time,” Porter said. “There are resources out there that are being shared internationally, but those resources are already committed.”

High winds on Tuesday and Wednesday prompted California’s largest utility, PG&E Corp., to cut power to about 48,000 homes and businesses in 13 counties to prevent electrical lines from sparking more blazes if they toppled. More than half of those customers had power restored by Thursday morning, with the rest expected to be back online by evening, the utility said. 

The winds helped fuel the Caldor Fire’s startling growth, and state fire officials on Wednesday pulled crews from other blazes to fight it. Investigators haven’t determined how many homes were burnt in Grizzly Flats. Footage from local television stations showed much of the town in ruins, with an elementary school and homes reduced to charred rubble.  

“This has been an incident that developed really quickly and has grown extremely fast,” said Mike Blankenheim, a unit chief with Cal Fire. “It’s outpaced the models on a two-to-one basis.”

The same winds also kept other fires growing. The month-old Dixie Fire in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains has now become the first known blaze in California’s history to burn all the way from the range’s western foothills, up over its crest and down into the valleys to the east, Porter said. 

“We don’t have any record of that happening before,” he said. By late Wednesday, the Dixie Fire had scorched more than 660,000 acres and destroyed more than 650 homes, Cal Fire said.

This year is on pace to become California’s worst fire seasons ever. On Monday, the state broke a milestone of 1-million acres burnt, the earliest it has ever reached that mark. So far this year, 6,540 fires have torched at least 1,800 structures in the state. But no deaths were reported by Wednesday.

Across the northern hemisphere, wildfires are sweeping areas left unusually dry this summer by drought and extreme heat blamed on climate change. A blaze near the French Riviera killed two people this week and injured at least 27. At least five people were killed this month by wildfires in southern Italy. And one outside Athens is forcing villages to evacuate. 

As drastic as California’s fire season has been so far, it is still weeks away from its peak, when the Santa Ana and Diablo winds start to blow from the east. As summer weather patterns give way to autumn, large high-pressure systems typically build over the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah, sending winds rushing from the east to low-pressure systems that often develop off the Pacific coast.

These winds dry out and heat up surroundings they cross California’s mountain ranges, allowing them to fan any sparks they catch into major fires. Four of the state’s five most destructive fires occurred in October and November.

State officials urged residents to pay attention to the speed with which fires are spreading and to be ready to evacuate if needed.

“Remember every acre in California can and will burn some day,” Porter said. “Just make sure that you’re ready when it does.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

subscribe

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.