Drought and Forest Fires: California is holding its breath for months to come


“Now that there’s smoke, everyone is panicking,” said Steve Crowder, mayor of the small town of Paradise in northern California, who nearly wiped the flames off the map in 2018.

He himself is still trying to refrain from tears when he mentions the fire that engulfed 95% of the buildings and 85 residents “who failed”. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever lived,” this former police officer assures. “I think the fire terrifies everyone here.”

Traumatized by these deadly fires and facing a particularly early dry season this year, with already five times more burnt vegetation than last year, this entire U.S. West state is holding its breath as summer approaches.

“In the last 25 months, fires have killed 101 civilians and destroyed 21,000 buildings in Butte County,” John Messina, fire chief of the county where Paradise is located, told AFP.

For him, “this exceeds everything California knew in modern times,” a kind of “zero point” that shows what the rest of the state is exposed to.

“In the past, we could have had an extraordinary fire every summer. Now half the fires happen. When I say extraordinary, I think they really far exceed our predictions” in terms of speed and intensity, he explains.

Although fires are part of the natural cycle of California forests, the fire season begins earlier and ends a little later each year. Not surprisingly, “climate change is seen as the main driver of this trend,” with the fire season extending by 75 days, firefighters state in their 2021 forecast.

John Messina, Chief of the Butte Fire Department (Northern California) at the Oroville Barracks, May 26, 2021 (AFP – Patrick T. FALLON)

“There is no more fire season. It is all year round, with peak activity at a certain time,” confirms John Messina on the ground, noting the tension and fatigue that now aspire to his firefighters. “We make them work extremely hard in the summer, four, five, six or even seven months, counting on the fact that they will be able to take a break in the winter. But there are no more breaks in California,” he observes.

– “state of emergency” –

A sign of a drought raging in California, the level of Lake Oroville in Butte County is half the normal for this time of year, May 25, 2021 (AFP - Patrick T. FALLON)

A sign of a drought raging in California, the level of Lake Oroville in Butte County is half the normal for this time of year, May 25, 2021 (AFP – Patrick T. FALLON)

The chronic drought that has hit the country this year, especially the north, is further exacerbating the situation.

“It is still a potentially exceptional year. In some areas we are feeling a significant drought and the vegetation humidity level is very low for this time of year. (…) Only one is missing. The fire is starting and we will have a problem. We are on standby,” Messina says. .

“We’re in May, but the vegetation is as dry as August or September. It’s like a barrel of gunpowder, it really worries us,” adds Steve Crowder.

Paradise has taken a number of steps to avoid a tragedy like “Campfire“ 2018. Homeowners should clean brushes, maintain lawns less than ten inches high, and free up space around buildings, and so on.

Firefighters are stepping up inspections to ensure compliance, but only a few thousand of the 26,000 residents evacuated during the fire have returned, and owners are sometimes hard to reach.

Paradise (Northern California) Mayor Steve Crowder in front of City Hall, May 26, 2021 (AFP - Patrick T. FALLON)

Paradise (Northern California) Mayor Steve Crowder in front of City Hall, May 26, 2021 (AFP – Patrick T. FALLON)

“I tell them all, if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your neighbors who stayed. (…) We are doing everything we can to make the city fire resistant,” the mayor explains.

“Of course, we don’t have as much fuel as during the campfire. But if we do nothing, in ten years we will find ourselves at the same point,” he insists.

Not far from Paradise is a small Berry Creek community on a slope. Burned trees testify to the violence of a fire that devastated the area in September 2020, killing 15 people in the blink of an eye.

Unlike many other locals who lost everything in the fire, Jimmy decided to return to where he settled 44 years ago.

For nine months, the 60-year-old worked hard to prepare to return to his estate, where he wants to end his days. “But it’s spent, I’m tired,” he says.

Just a few weeks ago, Jimmy returned to his country, carefully cleaned. He is staying in a caravan, using water from a well and preparing to lay the foundation for his new home, a prefabricated house he expects this summer. “Fire resistant standards, with a metal roof and all that!” He says.



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