Wednesday, September 30, 2020
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Worst Calif. wildfire season in decades

In the town of Berry Creek, California, one parent picked up a WiFi hotspot for her children at the elementary school just hours before their smartphones received an emergency evacuation order, the New York Times reports.

Even small wildfires turn the sky orange (Kacie Crisp/iStockPhoto)

“The pandemic has actually helped,” the paper quoted Patsy Oxford, the principal of Berry Creek Elementary as saying, referring to the fact that children can continue with school via Zoom and other remote learning measures the district had put in place, despite the fact that the school building has burned down.

The fire that destroyed it also destroyed almost every home and business in the northern California town of about 1,200 people. Nine residents were killed in the fire, including a 16-year-old boy.

It’s a strange paradox that the pandemic and the preparedness it forced upon schools has provided comfort for students and teachers, allowing them to interact with each other when the wildfire would have kept them apart in a non-pandemic year.

The wildfire season in California is shaping up to be a bad one, given lackluster rainfall totals and lightning storms that have, this year, given rise to three of the four largest fires in California history, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle. Years with higher average rainfall totals have often corresponded with lower acreage burned. In 1983, for example, 40.11 inches of rain fell and 90,108 acres burned; in 2018, 16.28 inches of rain fell and 1.85 million acres burned.

In a blog post for the Yale Center for Environmental Communication, Bob Henson says the worst may be ahead for California residents:

While many of the state’s largest fires occur in late summer, the deadliest and most destructive blazes tend to occur at the tail end of the dry season, from September to December. The most hazardous setups are when strong downslope/offshore winds (typically called Diablo winds in northern California and Santa Ana winds in southern California) arrive before the first heavy rains of autumn.

There’s now evidence that climate change is boosting the risk of extreme wildfire conditions in California autumns, according to an August study published in Environmental Research Letters and led by Michael Goss of Stanford University.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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