Changes: North­ern state be­com­ing more like blaze-prone south

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Kurtis Alexan­der

The cat­a­strophic fires that have rav­aged Wine Coun­try this week may be un­prece­dented in their toll, but they’re only the lat­est in a wave of in­fer­nos that have blasted through the hills and val­leys north of San Fran­cisco in re­cent years. And the trend is likely to worsen.

As tem­per­a­tures climb across the West and as a sprawl­ing Bay Area ex­pands de­vel­op­ment into in­creas­ingly ru­ral reaches, North­ern Cal­i­for­nia is be­com­ing more akin to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where warm weather and peo­ple stak­ing tro­phy homes along far-flung cliffs and canyons have set the stage for chronic

burn­ing, fire ex­perts say.

“I can’t imag­ine how there isn’t go­ing to be more of this in the fu­ture,” said Hugh Saf­ford, an ecol­o­gist for the U.S. For­est Ser­vice’s Pa­cific South­west Re­gion. “It’s shock­ing what’s hap­pened, but it re­ally isn’t nec­es­sar­ily all that sur­pris­ing.”

In the past few years, the north state’s coastal moun­tains have wit­nessed sev­eral dev­as­tat­ing burns, much in line with what the south­ern coast has long en­dured. In 2015, the Val­ley Fire that spread into Lake, Sonoma and Napa coun­ties de­stroyed nearly 1,300 homes and killed four peo­ple, and the fol­low­ing year a blaze wiped out the heart of the Lake County town of Lower Lake.

The most de­struc­tive of this week’s wild­fires are within an hour’s drive south of Lower Lake, but they swept into ar­eas much more pop­u­lated, such as the north edge of Santa Rosa, in­ten­si­fy­ing the im­pact.

“That part of the state over the past four years ... has had an end­less se­ries of un­re­lent­ing fires,” Saf­ford said. “It’s typ­i­cal of the coast ranges, when you get to Santa Bar­bara and south, which are dry and hence more flammable. But this is re­ally a new thing here. I think that Lake County may be the next fron­tier of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia as it moves north.”

While fall has al­ways been the most per­ilous sea­son for North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires, as off­shore winds pick up and the trees and shrubs reach their dri­est points af­ter the warm sum­mer months, a num­ber of the un­der­ly­ing forces have changed in the past decade or two.

The most ob­vi­ous is tem­per­a­ture, which has risen glob­ally as a re­sult of hu­man-in­duced green­house gas emis­sions. This sum­mer marked Cal­i­for­nia’s hottest in recorded his­tory. San Fran­cisco reached an all-time high of 106 de­grees in Septem­ber, con­tin­u­ing a tra­jec­tory that’s put the Bay Area more on par with balmier South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

The milder weather means that veg­e­ta­tion is dryer and more com­bustible and that the fire sea­son runs longer, per­haps even­tu­ally be­com­ing a year­round af­fair as it is in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

“As long as you have stuff to burn, warm­ing tem­per­a­tures in­crease the like­li­hood that stuff is go­ing to burn,” said Park Wil­liams, a bio­cli­ma­tol­o­gist and re­search pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity’s La­mon­tDo­herty Earth Ob­ser­va­tory in New York. “Cli­mate is cer­tainly driv­ing the trends that we’re see­ing in fire across the West.”

A study pub­lished last year by Wil­liams sug­gests that as much as half the burn­ing of for­est land in Western states since the 1980s is due to global warm­ing.

Re­search also shows that ex­tremes of weather both wet and dry — an­other prod­uct of cli­mate change — are push­ing more pow­er­ful blazes. Cli­mate ex­perts point with alarm to the way this year’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily rainy win­ter in Cal­i­for­nia, which cre­ated a bumper crop of brush and grass, gave way swiftly to record heat that dried out the wild­lands and pro­vided co­pi­ous fuel to burn.

“This is the recipe for big­ger fires,” Wil­liams said. “Most mod­els agree that the fre­quency of ex­tremely wet years will in­crease, and that hap­pens at the same time that all mod­els show things get­ting warmer.”

The same mod­els ex­plain the deadly string of hur­ri­canes that bat­tered parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean over the past few

months. And they may ex­plain re­cent land­slides and drought in Africa, and threat­en­ing tsunamis in Cen­tral Amer­ica.

West Coast sci­en­tists are also in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether the warm­ing planet is in­ten­si­fy­ing the hot off­shore winds that have driven this week’s Wine Coun­try fires, com­monly called Di­ablo winds.

At the same time, re­searchers are look­ing into whether cli­mate change is tied to warmer evening tem­per­a­tures, which have al­lowed fires like the ones in Napa and Sonoma coun­ties to burn overnight rather than be­gin to cool. The worst dam­age in Sonoma County oc­curred between mid­night and dawn on Mon­day.

While cli­mate has cre­ated a play­ing field more con­ducive to fu­ri­ous and fre­quent fires, the root cause of the burns re­mains, al­most ex­clu­sively, hu­man fail­ing. North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s coastal moun­tains don’t see much light­ning, and be­fore the hills were set­tled, fire was rel­a­tively un­com­mon here. To­day, there’s no short­age of ig­ni­tion sources, whether downed power lines, au­to­mo­bile tailpipes or cig­a­rette butts.

“Peo­ple want to live out in the woods, and this is al­ways a real and present dan­ger,” said Saf­ford of the For­est Ser­vice. “Th­ese fires should prob­a­bly be a wake-up call to think more about hu­man habi­ta­tion and how we deal with that.”

The growth of fires will likely put in­creas­ing pres­sure on state and fed­eral fire­fight­ing bud­gets. Just three months into the cur­rent fis­cal year, the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion had spent $258 mil­lion of its roughly $430 mil­lion an­nual emer­gency fund — and that was be­fore the Wine Coun­try fires broke out.

“This week’s fires alone are go­ing to chew up quite a bit of what is left,” said Cal Fire spokes­woman Lynne Tol­ma­choff. “And we’re not done with fire sea­son. We don’t have any pre­cip­i­ta­tion show­ing up in our fore­casts. And then there’s the fires in May and June next year.”

While it’s still early in the bud­get year, Cal Fire’s out­lay is nearly on pace with the record $547 mil­lion ex­pended in 201516, an amount that re­quired the state to tap other fund­ing streams as well as fed­eral aid. The amount of emer­gency money spent an­nu­ally by Cal Fire in the past five years is more than dou­ble what it was a decade ago.

Through Sun­day, be­fore wide swaths of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia turned into a dis­as­ter zone, wild­fires had black­ened about 850,000 acres across the state, nearly 70 per­cent above the five-year av­er­age for the date.

Peter DaSilva / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Fire­fight­ers clear a downed tree from across Mount Veeder Road in the hills of Napa on Wed­nes­day af­ter flames from the Nuns Fire raged through.

Car­los Avila Gon­za­lez / The Chron­i­cle

A grove of trees near Trin­ity Road burns Wed­nes­day near a vine­yard af­ter a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion was or­dered in the area of Glen Ellen, east of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County.

Todd Trum­bull / The Chron­i­cle

Sources: Cal Fire, OpenStreetMap, Chron­i­cle re­search by Bill Van Niek­erken

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