Firefighters battle the Lake Fire in California, 22 June 2015. Photo: Brandi Carlos / NBC News

By Sarah Kaplan
25 September 2015

(The Guardian) – Vast swathes of forest are so brittle and bone-dry that they burn up in an instant. A vicious wildfire, whipped up by hot, arid winds and moving faster than anything in recent memory, consumed tens of thousands of hectares in a matter of hours. Hundreds of homes and at least one person were lost in an inferno that took days to get under control. That’s in California’s north.

If you drove south on the same day last month, and you would have found darkened skies and heavy sheets of rain pounding the parched earth around Los Angeles. By noon on 15 September, the city had received 63.5mm of rain, that’s 10 times the precipitation the area usually gets in the entire month. The city has only seen two other storms like it in the past 150 years.

Rather than relief, the water brought chaos. Thousands lost power and hundreds of cars crashed on flooded roads, according to the Los Angeles Times. Almost one million litres of stormwater surged from San Gabriel sewers, contaminating the river and beaches dozens of kilometres downstream. At least one home plunged down a hillside as the earth beneath it was suddenly washed away. Ten people had to be plucked from rushing, rain-swollen rivers by rescue crews.

For months – for four years, really – California has been dying for a drink. Repeated dry winters and scorching hot summers have depleted reservoirs and river systems and set fire to much of the land. But now that the rain might finally be coming, carried along by an El Niño that promises to be one of the strongest in recent history, the ground isn’t ready to absorb it. The same drought that makes the state so desperate for water has also baked the earth and denuded the landscape. Forests that once strengthened the soil and soaked up rainfall have been obliterated by fire. “El Niño is a cruel system,” Australian climatologist Roger Stone, a University of Southern Queensland professor and a programme chair the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation, said. “They bring relief, but they bring too much rain too quickly. That’s when you get mudslides, landslides, topsoil washed away.”

Poor California. When it’s not “extraordinarily hostile” fires, as veteran firefighter Kevin Rosado described the Valley fire north of San Francisco, it’s the “Godzilla” El Niño forecasted in a few months.

For a while, they’ll both be happening at once. September and October are usually the “largest and most damaging months for fires,” California Fire Chief information officer Daniel Berlant told Wired magazine. Meanwhile, stronger than usual storms are starting to arrive. “You have leftover intense drought patterns lingering in the system and now here comes the El Niño effect,” Stone said. “You’ve got both pummelling you at the same time.” [more]

Floods after drought: why El Niño might not revive California

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