What's To Blame For California's Early Fire Season?

May 16, 2014
Originally published on May 16, 2014 8:00 pm
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These fires herald what promises to be an especially busy and dangerous fire season in California. The entire state is in a condition of extreme drought. Couple that with high temperatures and strong Santa Ana winds and you wind up with what we're seeing now: spinning columns of fierce flame called firenados(ph). I'm joined now by California's secretary for natural resources, John Laird. Welcome to the program, Mr. Laird.

JOHN LAIRD: It's a pleasure to be with you.

BLOCK: Is it unprecedented for fire season to be starting this early?

LAIRD: It really is. Normally, we staff up throughout all of California approximately June 1 for fire season. Occasionally, it's different in different parts of the state. This year, we were up everywhere by April 1, and in some places, the fire season never really stopped from last year.

BLOCK: How much of this do you attribute to the drought and the extent of the drought in California?

LAIRD: It is almost entirely attributable to the drought. And as you said in your intro, we have extreme drought all across the state, but there's a category I never even knew of, which is exceptional drought. And we have certain parts of the central valley and central coast that are in that status.

BLOCK: I've read, Mr. Laird, that you should be having something called May Gray followed by June Gloom in southern California, meaning it should be cloudy and pretty cool. That's not happening this year, right - at least not yet.

LAIRD: Exactly. And usually that means that there's a marine lair across the coast. As spring moves on, fog forms during the day and rolls in, in the miles near the coast, and that is just not happening this year. And if it were happening, that would be giving a tremendous breather to firefighters and not setting the humidity conditions that are really allowing some of these fires to rage.

BLOCK: Well, when you look at this combination of factors, is it clear to you that climate change is to blame for the drought and the heat, and ultimately for these fires?

LAIRD: I think climate change is a major factor. And it's always questionable to link specific events scientifically to climate change. But the fact that our fire season has changed, the weather patterns are changing, that shows that in my home area of Santa Cruz, we used to always have streams and the river that flowed comfortably into May and sometimes June, and we turn to our reservoir as a backup in the summer months. And now the reservoir is now a central part of supply. You can just see the changes as people operate on the ground.

BLOCK: I wonder, Mr. Laird, as the head of natural resources there in California, when you look ahead to the months to come, what does that picture look like for you?

LAIRD: The conditions weather-wise that we've been experiencing in San Diego are usually the weather conditions of October that happen right before we head into our rainy season. So, obviously, we hope for a break, but if this continues we're in for one of the biggest fire seasons, probably very unprecedented, in California history.

BLOCK: And what's your message to homeowners?

LAIRD: The message to homeowners is, is that 95 percent of fires in California are caused by human activity. And so this is not the time to have open fires. And Cal Fire has a burning ban across the state. This is not the time to operate equipment in warm parts of the day, that could have sparks or set off fires. People need to have defensible space for at least 100 feet around their home. And everybody needs to have some kind of plan in case of a fire - a plan of evacuation, a plan of how you meet your loved ones. Pay attention to what the fire officials and law enforcement say about evacuation and have a plan.

BLOCK: John Laird is secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. He joined us from Sacramento. Mr. Laird, thanks for your time.

LAIRD: I'll look forward to being back with you under better circumstances. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.