As the Labor Day weekend tailed off, much of the American West was facing extreme fire danger, with wildfires burning near Rocky Mountain National Park and across much of California, where the U.S. Forest Service called conditions “unprecedented.” With the weather expected to get even worse for fires on Tuesday and Wednesday (high offshore winds and extreme low humidity), the USFS closed eight of the twenty national forests in the Pacific Southwest region, affecting much of Central and Southern California, and closed all developed campgrounds and day-use areas in the state. Additionally, the Forest Service banned open flames of any kind in all national forests in California.
The closed forests are Angeles National Forest, Cleveland National Forest, Inyo National Forest, Los Padres National Forest, San Bernardino National Forest, Sequoia National Forest, Sierra National Forest, and Stanislaus National Forest. Collectively, they spread across 9,154,971 acres, or about 14,300 square miles.
“The wildfire situation throughout California is dangerous and must be taken seriously. Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behavior, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire,” said Randy Moore, regional forester for the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region. “We are bringing every resource to bear nationally and internationally to fight these fires, but until conditions improve and we are confident that national forest visitors can recreate safely, the priority is always to protect the public and our firefighters. With these extreme conditions, these temporary actions will help us do both.”
The weather and fire events are hallmarks of human-caused climate change. A study released in March showed that extreme fire weather has doubled since the 1980s, thanks to higher temperatures and less precipitation. (For more, see this explainer, “How Climate Change is Affecting Wildfires Around the World,” from Carbon Brief.) More than two million acres of California have burned in 2020, breaking the record for the most acreage burnt in a single year, with the worst part of the fire season still to come.
The California fire getting the most attention is the Creek Fire (photo, above), which as of Monday afternoon had burned 78,790 acres and was zero percent contained. Located north-northeast of Fresno and due south of Yosemite National Park, the fire threatened Mammoth Pool Reservoir area and blocked the only road out from the popular camping area. More than 200 people were rescued by military helicopters and 20 were injured.
Scenes from the Creek Fire via Washington Post
In Southern California, in Angeles National Forest, which borders the Los Angeles basin on the north, the Bobcat fire has burned almost 5,000 acres and is zero percent contained. East of there, at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, the El Dorado fire (caused by a “pyrotechnic device” at a gender-reveal party) has consumed 8,600 acres and was just seven percent contained. To the north, firefighters quickly snuffed out a blaze not far from the mountain community of Crestline. Thirty miles east of San Diego and a bit south of the widely known Noble Canyon Trail (considered to be one of the best mountain bike trails in SoCal), the Valley fire has burned 10,000 acres and 11 homes and is just one percent contained.
California has been in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave, with temperatures skyrocketing over the weekend. The mercury hit 121 in Woodland Hills and Chino, both about 30 minutes from L.A., which marked the highest temperature ever observed in L.A., Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo counties, as well breaking the record for the highest temp west of the SoCal mountains. Palm Springs was 122, breaking the record for the day, and San Francisco was 100 degrees, a new record for the day. In Central California, San Luis Obispo saw a whopping 120 degrees, thought to be the highest temperature recorded that close to an ocean in the Americas.
Meanwhile, the weather is expected to get worse, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where extreme winds and aridity are forecast to arrive by Tuesday. These winds, similar to Southern California’s Santa Anas and the Bay Area’s Diablos, will sweep offshore from the mountains, gathering speed and heating up on their way. And yes, the forecast for Southern California the next two days includes Santa Anas.
Top photo: Inciweb