At least 15 people were dead, 200 were missing, more than 20,000 were evacuated, hundreds were sent to hospital for burns or smoke inhalation, and Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency across eight counties early this week as “Diablo Winds” sparked more than a dozen wildfires in Napa and Sonoma, the popular “wine country” north of San Francisco.
“This is really serious. It’s moving fast,” Brown told a news conference Monday. “The heat, the lack of humidity, and the winds are all driving a very dangerous situation and making it worse. It’s not under control by any means.”
On the same day that Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency moved to abandon the centrepiece of America’s program to contain its greenhouse gas emissions, the Washington Post observes, “more than eight million acres have burned in at least four states” so far in 2017, “raising questions from across the political spectrum about the connection to climate change.” As of Monday, the latest California blazes had burned 107,000 acres, including an astonishing 80,000 acres in just 18 hours, according to Wildfire Today.
“Fanned by winds gusting in excess of 50 miles per hour, upward of a dozen wildfires erupted Sunday night in the hills north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento,” writes WT correspondent Jason Pohl. “Already under a red flag warning, thousands of residents who went to bed Sunday gearing up for another week instead woke in the middle of the night and raced through ember-filled streets in a desperate effort to escape.”
By evening, 15 “wind-whipped fires” had ignited across nine counties, more than 2,000 homes had been destroyed, and “many of the fires remained 0 percent contained, despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters from crews across the state.”
“In Santa Rosa,” the New York Times reports, fire “gutted a Hilton hotel and flattened the Journey’s End retirement community. Ash fell like snowflakes, and a pall of white smoke across the city blotted out the sun.” The description matched what was faced by tens of thousands of British Columbians who lost or were forced from homes earlier in the fire season, as that province’s air was similarly hazed in toxic smoke.
Firefighters were hoping for some relief from prevailing weather patterns sometime Tuesday. But apart from the immediate and overwhelming human impact, a longer-running crisis will have a significant impact on a local wine industry that produces 13% of California’s wine, part of a sector that generates US$55 billion in annual economic activity for the state and $110 billion across the U.S., the Post notes.
On Grist, meteorologist and climate hawk Eric Holthaus explains that October is often a bad month for wildfires in California. “It’s this time of year when a combination of strong offshore winds and low humidity can quickly fan a seemingly innocent spark into a raging inferno,” he writes.
“These winds are usually formed by a strong inland high pressure centre, which pushes air down mountainsides and through canyons, causing it to warm up and dry out—a perfect environment for fast-growing fires,” Holthaus wrote Monday. “A 2015 study said climate change is making these wind events more frequent and more severe in California.”