Calif. fires add to already bad wildfire season

High winds and dry conditions sparked massive firestorms in the heart of California wine country late Sunday and early Monday, adding tens of thousands of acres to what is already a significantly above-average fire season in the parched western United States.
 
The Columbus Day fires in four Northern California counties burned more than 115,000 acres, leaving at least 15 people dead and more than 2,000 structures destroyed.
 
Tens of thousands of residents fled Santa Rosa and nearby towns, evacuating hospitals as at least one fire jumped a major highway that bisects Sonoma County. At least 20,000 people are still under mandatory evacuation orders, a spokeswoman for CalFire said.
 
Seven areas across Northern California are under mandatory evacuation orders as firefighters battle 17 uncontained conflagrations. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared states of emergency in seven northern counties and one in Orange County.
 
Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, said forecasts show dry, windy weather ahead — conditions similar to those that sparked the Columbus Day infernos.
 
“These are such catastrophic disasters,” Pimlott said. “We’re only beginning to realize the destruction they’ve caused.”
ADVERTISEMENT
 
The latest outbreak of fires brings the amount of land currently burning across the West to nearly 1.2 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
 
This year’s fire season has been far worse than the average season over the past decade, straining state and federal budgets and endangering lives and property in areas that had been spared in recent years.
 
“These are not your grandfather’s fires in the west.They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster, and they just clobber homes and businesses and shatter people’s futures. They’re just as real and devastating as other natural disasters that strike any other part of the country,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenLobbying World Overnight Regulation: House to vote on repealing joint-employer rule | EPA won't say which areas don't meet Obama smog rule | Lawmakers urge regulators to reject Perry plan New tax plan will hinder care for older Americans MORE (D-Ore.), who toured fire lines in his state last month.
 
As of Friday, nearly 8.5 million acres of land had burned this year, about 2 million acres more than average over the past decade.
 
Fire experts said the combination of an unusually wet winter after five years of extreme drought has created a potent mix of highly flammable fuels. Rain and snow spurred a bumper crop of grasses at lower elevations, which can burn quickly, while drought and disease have hollowed out forests at higher elevations.
 
“We’re being impacted by the fuel conditions, the amount of light, flashy fuels,” Pimlott said. “The rains gave us the significant crop of grasses that we didn’t have during the drought, and that’s become the kindling. It’s literally the wick.”
 
The fires have placed new burdens on state and federal budgets. The Trump administration last week asked Congress to appropriate $576 million for wildfire suppression. Montana has spent more than $60 million fighting fires across the state this year, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) said last month. Blazes in Oregon have cost state and local responders more than $100 million.
 
“The devastation was really eye-popping,” Wyden said of his tour of the Eagle Creek fire, which jumped the Columbia River. “We never saw anything like this in Oregon before.”
 
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also asked Congress to change the way firefighting is funded, so that it is treated like responses to other natural disasters.
 
“Additional funding alone will not reverse the worsening trend of catastrophic wildfires that threaten our forests, critical habitats, and communities that border public lands,” OMB director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyBudget chief: Trump won't sign GOP tax plan 'if our numbers show' middle class will pay more Live coverage: Day two of the Ways and Means GOP tax bill markup West Coast Dems lead call to fund early warning system for earthquakes MORE wrote to Congress. “Active forest management and other reforms must be part of the solution to curb the cost and destruction of wildfires.”
 
 
“The fire borrowing problem really highlights how we have a truly broken common-sense-defying system of fighting fire. What happens is the government shorts prevention,” Wyden said. “The government borrows from the prevention fund to put the fire out, and then the problem gets worse.”
 
The U.S. Forest Service spends a huge percentage of its annual budget fighting fires. Already this year, the Forest Service has said it has spent $2 billion on fire suppression — the most it has ever spent in a fiscal year.
 
Bipartisan groups of Western lawmakers have agitated to change the fire-funding formula, so that states no longer have to seek reimbursement for fighting blazes on federal land. 
 
“Every year we repeat this stupid, stupid cycle,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who spearheaded a letter to Mulvaney signed by 31 members of Congress, said in a statement. “Robbing the accounts that would do the forest thinning to pay for the firefighting while the first are going on, so we don’t do the preventive work because we have to pay for the fire.”
 
In California, even as firefighters continue battling blazes that have threatened Napa, Sonoma and Santa Rosa, physical and psychological recovery are likely to take years.
 
“For the current generation of North Bay residents, today’s firestorm will leave an indelible scar, and for years to come we will all recall the Columbus Day firestorm,” forecasters at the National Weather Service’s San Francisco Bay Area office wrote in an update late Monday. “Fire literally exploded and raced across the landscape.”