By Umair Irfan 
15 October 2017

(Vox) – Raging infernos in California are burning through shrub land and neighborhoods while inching perilously close to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

This year is shaping up to be one of the state’s worst fire seasons ever, as windswept flames have scorched more than 214,000 acres and caused at least 40 deaths, making last week the deadliest week for California wildfires on record.

At the same time, communities in the Bay Area are now shrouded with the worst air pollution they’ve ever measured, yet another threat to health from the fires.

Though seasonal wildfires are a natural occurrence in the Golden State, humans are making them worse and increasing the harm from them every step of the way.

On Saturday, firefighters were working across the state to contain 16 large fires that have already destroyed at least 5,700 homes and businesses. The Tubbs fire in Napa and Sonoma counties alone killed 22 people, making it one of the deadliest wildfires in California history.

“Personally, I think it will be one of the worst disasters in California history,” Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano told a town hall in Santa Rosa.

For California, this may be just the beginning of a mounting disaster as stiff, dry air currents pick up throughout the state and many more combustible acres lie in the fires’ path.

It’s also just the latest unfolding tragedy in what has already been an epic fire season across the United States, burning through more than 8.5 million of acres of land and sending choking smoke throughout much of the West.

Fires are more damaging because we keep building in harm’s way

The California fires stretch the definition of “natural disaster” since human activities have exacerbated their likelihood, their extent, and their damage. Deliberate decisions and unintended consequences of urban development over decades have turned many parts of the state into a tinderbox.

This year’s blazes particularly stand out because of how close they are to suburbs and major cities.

Video shows heavy flames and smoke next to California power lines, 9 October 2017. Photo: KCRA News

“When we get wildfires close to residential areas, that’s what makes them extraordinary events,” said Heath Hockenberry, fire weather program manager at the National Weather Service. It’s also getting increasingly hard to keep people at a safe distance from the embers. […]

We keep changing the climate, which makes fires more likely

There are some unique weather conditions that are driving the exceptionally swift California fires, like strong winds and high temperatures. But long-term trends linked to global warming also exacerbated this year’s fire season, not just in California but in other states too.

“Fuel, wind, and long-term dry conditions: Those are the three facts that are really what’s causing this right now,” said the National Weather Service’s Hockenberry.

California saw intense rainfall last year and then a cool, wet winter. The increased precipitation led to more growth in combustible grasses, shrubs, and trees.

What followed during the summer was a period of intense, dry heat throughout the state, including the highest temperatures ever recorded in the Bay Area.

“When it dried out, it dried out really hard, and it got really hot,” Hockenberry said. [more]

California’s wildfires aren’t “natural” — humans made them worse at every step

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