Dan's Outside

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Here We Go: California's Fire Season

The sight of huge towers of smoke from the Lick Fire at Henry Coe Park last night reminded me again that the next two months could be a terrible fire season in California. (According to this morning’s reports, the fire has ballooned to over 5,000 acres in less than 24 hours as it burns through drier-than-usual grassland, chaparral, and forest between Mt. Sizer and the Mount Hamilton area.)

September and October are heart of the wildfire season in most of California. By this time of year, there generally has not been appreciably rain in five or six months. In addition, this is that time of the “off-shore” winds that come from the northeast, supplying continental heat, drying as they move downslope, and fanning any fire that does start. The smell of smoke from fires near or far is never far away in the Sierra this time of year.

And this year many parts of California are suffering from an extraordinarily dry winter season. In the Sierra, last season’s precipitation ranged from about 50% of normal in the northern Sierra down to about 20% of normal in the south. The effects of the former are obvious to regular visitors to the mountains, but the effects of the latter are quite stunning. I spent about a week backpacking in the southern Sierra in early August and I have never seen conditions like this year’s so early in the season – early August conditions looked more like mid- September, with almost all high altitude vegetation having gone brown already.

The fact that there is a fire in the Coe Park backcountry is not the big news. It is natural for these hills to burn from time to time, especially during this season. What is surprising to me is the incredible speed with which this fire spread during its first day.

(Note: Tom Mangan has included an impressive aerial photograph of the fire shot last night in a post at his blog.)


September 4, 2007 - Posted by | Commentary, Environment

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