Southern California has always been warm and dry, but half a decade of drought has created a climate incredibly prone to uncontrollable fire. Almost daily freeway side patches of grass and shrub covered hills light on fire, but generally those fires are stamped out quite quickly. Recently a fire started in a similar fashion, a dry patch of grass right off the side of California State Highway 14 burst into flames, but before fire fighters could fight the fire, temperatures higher than 100 degrees and 20 mile per hour winds allowed the fire to jump the freeway and onto one of those aforementioned shrub covered hills.
The conditions were just right that the fire raced up the hill and back down the other side, before long the wind that pushed it across the freeway and up the hill had created a rapidly expanding 2,000+ acre fire. Residents of Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley watched as the fire engulfed the surrounding hills and filled the sky with thick plumes of black smoke. Helicopters and planes made the trip from the fire to nearby Castaic Lake in order to fill up with water to dump on the inferno. Despite nearly constant attention from the sky and over 1,000 firefighters on the ground, the conditions were just right and the fire kept growing. Eventually it reached nearly 40,000 acres at 10% containment, it went on to destroy 18 homes and evacuation orders displaced 10,000 households for a few days.
The Sand Fire has been controlled now and eventually shifted in such a way it began to burn away from people and into brush that probably needed burned to begin with, but not before it became one of the largest wild fires in Southern California’s history. It was the perfect concoction of fire conditions, high temperatures, high winds, low humidity, and years of drought in an already dry climate. For a lot of regions prone to wild fire, these conditions only exist for a few months a year. For those few months fire fighters work hard and are on alert at all times, but afterwards there is downtime to rid forests of dry fuel and regroup. In places like Southern California fire season has become nearly a year long affair and there is less time and resources to get rid of the fuel that enabled the Sand Fire to become so big so quickly.
On top of that the drought and high temperatures won’t be going away any time soon. Record high temperatures and record low rainfall have plagued Southern California for over 5 years. It’s hard to imagine these trends are going to shift in a significant way anytime soon and with firefighting resources already pushed year round, the Sand Fire doesn’t seem like a once in a decade affair. As climate change continues and the conditions which inspired the Sand Fire become average, fires like the Sand Fire will too. These fires cost a lot in both time and energy, but also in resident’s wellbeing and state of mind. Unfortunately the trend doesn’t appear to be reversing any time soon, and despite some good news on the climate change front, it’s not the sort of reversal places like Southern California will need to remain sustainable.