July 14, 2024
Heat wave dried out vegetation statewide, increasing summer wildfire risk, experts say

Flanked by fire officials, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday warned Californians to be alert as the state heads into what could be a worse-than-expected fire season, following a brutal heat wave that has dried out vegetation and contributed to five times as many acres burning so this year statewide than normal.

He also urged voters to be vigilant about the upcoming presidential election, reiterating his support for President Biden remaining the Democratic nominee and saying that California “has the most to lose” if Donald Trump wins in November.

“I’m focused on supporting this campaign,” Newsom said of Biden’s re-election effort. “This candidate is a man of character, decency and honor. Contrast that with the darkness that is Donald Trump.”

Asked by a reporter if he still stood by a promise he made last September not to run against Vice President Kamala Harris for president, Newsom said “Of course. Yes.”

Newsom, along with Harris and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has been mentioned often as a possible replacement for Biden as the Democratic nominee after Biden’s faltering debate performance June 27. But  Newsom has said he supports Biden, and has campaigned actively for him this past week in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Flanked by helicopters, planes and fire commanders at the Cal Fire Aviation Management Unit in Sacramento, Newsom said at a news conference Wednesday that Biden quickly helped California with disaster aid following wildfires and other calamities, while Trump resisted.

“In that past that was not so easy,” he said. “We had to make phone calls, we had to wait days and days, there were threats. That’s not the case today.”

Newsom recalled Trump’s remarks while touring the devastation from the Camp Fire in 2018, a blaze sparked by a PG&E power line that burned the town of Paradise in Butte County to the ground, killing 85 people, the deadliest wildfire in state history.

“You gotta take care of the floors. You know the floors of the forest, very important,” Trump said then. “You look at other countries where they do it differently and it’s a whole different story. I was with the president of Finland and he called it a forest nation, and they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don’t have any problem.”

Wildfire experts noted that many of California’s wildfires have burned in national forests, which are owned and maintained by the federal government, not the state. And that while California has a mostly dry Mediterranean climate, Finland is a Nordic country where temperatures reach -45 F in the winter.

Newsom said Cal Fire officials have hit their target four years in a row for thinning or conducting controlled burns on 100,000 acres or more. The state has 9,700 Cal Fire personnel this summer, compared with 6,700 in 2018, he added.

On issues from the environment to abortion rights, Newsom said, the election is key.

“Everything about this campaign will impact this state disproportionately,” Newsom said. “We were involved with 122 lawsuits with the Trump administration. Don’t you guys remember that? The chaos. The fear the anxiety.

“He said we need to rake the forests,” Newsom added. “Daylight and darkness. This is a profound and consequential moment. This an all-in moment for all of us. This is serious for this state. No state has more to lose.”

During his four years as president, Trump denied climate change science and appointed a coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Newsom has made climate change a centerpiece of his governorship, signing legislation to prohibit the sale of new gasoline-burning vehicles by 2035, and spending billions to expand solar, wind, offshore wind and other alternative energy projects.

“We have to address the underlying cause in the first place, and that’s heat-trapping gasses,” Newsom said Wednesday. “We’ve got to address the issue of fossil fuels. We have to hold polluters accountable.”

Over the past two weeks, California has endured a record heat wave, with temperatures hitting 124 degrees in Palm Springs, and 110 degrees or more in much of the Central Valley, Southern California, and parts of the Bay Area.

“Over and over and over and over and over again,” Newsom said. “Record-breaking temperatures. Record-breaking experiences, not just in California, but across this country and around the rest of the world. With respect to the troglodytes out there, climate change is real. If you don’t believe in science you have to believe your own eyes.”

So far this year, 207,415 acres have burned in California wildfires. That’s five times the average of the previous five years, 38,593 acres, through July 10. Although more acres have burned, there have been fewer fires: 3,543 this year, compared with a five-year average of 3,659.

Cal Fire Chief Joe Tyler said two wet winters in a row built up significant amounts of grass. Several very windy days and the heat wave made fires spread quickly. But there have been no fatalities, Tyler noted, and the number of structures burned has been relatively low so far, even when recent fires threatened towns like Oroville and Mariposa.

“We need to be extra cautious in these hot dry, and windy conditions,” Tyler said. He urged people to mow grass early in the morning when humidity levels are higher, and to be careful with chainsaws, grinders, tractors and other equipment that can spark fires.

A leading fire scientist agreed. Until the heat wave, moisture levels in grasses and brush around the state were running near average or better, said John Abatzoglou, professor of climate science at UC Merced. Now they are near record-dry for this time of year, and summer fire risk is higher than he had expected.

“The heat wave has really dried the state out,” Abatzoglou said. “It has taken fire danger from close to normal a couple of weeks ago to exceptionally dry now. It has taken the summer time drying of fuels into overdrive.”

An air tanker drops retardant behind a home while battling the Toll Fire near Calistoga, Calif., Tuesday, July 2, 2024. An extended heat wave blanketing Northern California has resulted in red flag fire warnings and power shutoffs. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)