For the last four days, I have had a front-row seat for the raging firestorms that have been sweeping southern California from my home in San Diego. On Sunday, I was vacationing out of town and had a 8:30 flight back to San Diego's Lindbergh Field. I hadn't seen any news during this trip so I was somewhat surprised when the airline clerk warned that we might be diverted from San Diego due to the fires that were burning there out of control.
Of course, I shouldn't have been completely surprised given that I had posted earlier this year about how experts were saying this year could be the worst fire season ever for southern California. As a hiking enthusiast, I often visit the parks of San Diego County and I have been able to see with my own eyes just how dry the brush is this year. In all of my 27 years living in San Diego, I have never seen it this bad.
As my plane cruised down the coast from San Francisco to San Diego, I could see the fires burning around Malibu and Irvine. Then, the flames from the "Witch" fire in north San Diego county came into view. Making the approach to the airport we could see the flames of the fire down near the Mexican border. I was relieved we were able to land but I knew this was going to be an interesting couple of days. After the drive from the airport to my home near Miramar MCAS, I got out of the car and was hit by a choking blast of smoke and ash.
As Monday dawned, I realized this was not going to be a typical brush fire. The air was full of smoke and ash was floating down from the sky like snow flurries. I flipped on the news and began watching the progress of the fires. One by one, the authorities began ordering mandatory evacuations of towns and neighborhoods threatened by the progress of the Witch Fire which began around Ramona and seemed to be heading straight for the sea.
The climate condition know as the "Santa Ana winds" is what makes fires in southern California this time of year so explosive. It's caused by a high-pressure system that parks itself over the Great Basin in Nevada. These systems heat up the air and send hot winds blasting over the deserts of Nevada and California towards the Pacific coast. Humidity, normally around 50%, drops as low as 3% in some areas. Any kind of spark is virtually guaranteed to create a major conflagration in these conditions.
My place is about 5 miles from the Pacific and typically the fires won't get close enough to force an evacuation. However, this year and this fire are very different from what we've seen in the past. The fire moved rapidly, exploding in the tinder-dry brush as it pushed westward driven by the hot Santa Ana winds. Eventually, the fire got within 10 miles of my place and the evacuation zone was extended to within 4 miles of where I live to the north. This is when the mass exodus began.
Authorities estimate that a half million people left their homes to escape the advancing fires. Most left because they lived in areas that were declared mandatory evacuation zones while many others left voluntarily. Many of these refugees fled southward to the area where I live, and by the evening virtually every free parking space on the streets was full. I took an unfortunate family of four (and two big dogs) into my home for the evening after they were forced to flee from the advancing fire.
While the epic 2003 fires took more lives, the fires this year were more threatening because of their unpredictability. Firefighters reported that they were stunned by the distance the fires had moved over Sunday evening. Typically, they are able to predict how far a fire will go during the nighttime hours, but this year their predictions were way off. This year's fires move much farther and are much more explosive than the fires of years past.
Incredibly, at one point evacuations were ordered to within a half-mile of the Pacific Ocean, something that has never happened before as long as I can recall. There is usually a good 10-mile buffer zone along the coast that is considered safe from the threat of fire; but not this year.
Thankfully, the winds lost some of their intensity by Tuesday and the fire's march to the sea was halted. In some places, the wind has reversed direction and the fire is now moving back into areas that it previously burned.
But we are certainly not out of the woods yet. Despite the amount of acreage that has burned there are still large areas that haven't burned and have tons of fuel with which to start another firestorm.
These fires, along with the devastating "Cedar" fire of 2003, have claimed hundreds of thousands of acres of southern California's rapidly vanishing forested areas. It seems entirely possible that, within my lifetime, there will not be any more free-standing large forests in southern California; only tiny enclaves of a few acres that for one reason or another manage to avoid getting caught up in the periodic maelstroms that have become a fact of life for us.
Earlier today, my colleague Lee Ward authored a post on how the right-wing wackos are coming up with al Qaeda conspiracy theories about what caused these fires. That's pure unadulterated nonsense. What people need to understand is that we have fires like this every year in southern California. They are started by a variety of causes. The Cedar fire was started by a lost hunter who started a fire to identify his location so he could be found. One of the fires this week was caused by a downed power line and another was caused by kids playing with matches. I'm sure some of the fires were started by arsonists but these usually turn out to be disturbed white male loners, not Islamic extremists.
The difference this year is that the fires once started are much more devastating than they were in the past. This is because of years of drought and one year of abnormally excessive rainfall that fueled the growth of brush a few years ago.
The bottom line is that from my perspective in San Diego county, it appears that we've broken the planet and this is part of the price we are going to pay for some time to come.
Note: Wizbang Blue is now closed and our authors have moved on. Paul Hooson can now be found at Wizbang Pop!. Please come see him there!