Since Oct. 10, about 15 fires have raged through California. The majority are still burning, ranging from 0% to 97% contained. Containment refers to the perimeter or physical barrier that firefighters build around fires and could come in the form of something natural such as a river or something man-made like a trench. In California, the smallest fire (the Gilbert Fire in Fullerton) covers 8 acres and has been totally contained while the largest (the Kincade Fire in Northern California, above Santa Rosa) covers 77,758 acres and is 68% contained. While the causes of about half of the fires are undetermined, those known range from a trash truck that dumped a burning load, a flare gun, a car that caught fire while being chased by police, and a tree branch that fell on a power line.
Despite their varied beginnings, all of these have something in common: they are brush fires. The trash truck’s load continued to burn because it landed on brush and the tree branch sparked in brush after striking power lines. Humidity is currently low in California, so brush is proving even more dangerous because the drier a fuel is, the more easily it will inflame. While many other states conduct prescribed burns to deal with brush and overgrown forests, California does not do so. In 2016, the state’s then-governor vetoed a bill that would have mandated such burns. The main controversies keeping the state from instituting controlled burns are smoke’s negative impact on air quality and environmentalists’ stance in opposition to logging. Governor Gavin Newsom and many others claim that climate change is the cause of the fires while others argue that it is instead this lack of controlled burns. Another important and undisputed factor is the Santa Anas, the strong winds California experiences every year. This season’s Santa Anas are some of the strongest that have occurred in years and, with gusts of this strength, officials fear that embers could be blown more than a mile away, further spreading the fires.
Both the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley (a site which holds memorabilia from President Reagan’s administration as well as the graves of Reagen and his wife Nancy) and the Getty Center in Los Angeles (one of the world’s largest art museums) were threatened by fire. On Oct. 30, the flames of the Easy Fire, which began that morning and spanned 1800 acres, came within 50 feet of the Reagan Library but did not reach it. Aircraft dropped water and retardant to keep the flames back. However, human efforts are not the only thing that saved the site. In May, a company provided a herd of 500 goats that ate much of the brush surrounding the library and, according to a firefighter, this lack of brush helped save the library and made the fire easier to fight.
Beyond scorching land, these fires have had an impact on the daily lives of many California residents. Almost 200,000 people in Northern California have been forced to evacuate, the largest number employees of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office can remember, and numerous schools have experienced closing. Further, about 940,000 homes and businesses have been subject to a power blackout enacted in order to prevent power lines from sparking more fires. Tens of thousands of structures have been threatened and at least 400 homes have been destroyed with many more damaged. At this point, the fires have caused three fatalities.
While a number of evacuation orders have been lifted, many of these fires have not been totally contained and more continue to start. There are currently eight fires that remain at least partly uncontained and, due to continuing high winds, the spread of fire could occur anywhere.
Sources: NY Times, LA Times, Reuters, NBC