Wildfires in Southern California could foretell a dangerous summer ahead

A wildfire that quickly burned more than 14,000 acres of grasslands and brush in a mountainous area northwest of Los Angeles marks the start of what experts warn could be a dangerous, protracted fire season in the West.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “This is just a taste of what’s to come.

The fire, dubbed the Post Fire, started Saturday afternoon near Interstate 5, about 45 miles outside Los Angeles, officials said. This forced the evacuation of about 1,200 people from the Hungry Valley Campground. Authorities also closed nearby Pyramid Lake, a destination for weekend boaters.

As of Sunday afternoon, the fire was 2 percent contained so far this year and ranked as the state’s largest wildfire, according to CalFire, California’s fire agency.

The Post Fire burned about 10,000 acres within 12 hours of igniting — and it spread quickly due to hot, dry and windy conditions, Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Kenichi Haskett said. Winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour at the ridgetop made firefighting efforts especially difficult. When firefighters dump water from airplanes, for example, “it sprays everywhere,” Mr. Haskett said.

With strong winds expected to continue through Sunday and Monday, Mr. Haskett said.

“We hope to achieve our target within the week,” he said.

Two buildings — a camping kiosk and another recreation building — were damaged, Mr. But no houses have been burned yet, Haskett said.

However, he said officials are encouraging residents in the area around Castaic Lake, another popular weekend destination, to prepare to evacuate if winds continue to push the fire south.

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On Sunday afternoon, another fast-moving brush fire, the Max fire, ignited about 50 miles east of the Post fire, burning several hundred acres near homes in Lancaster, a city of about 170,000. Although the fire was fully contained by Sunday evening, some residents were told to evacuate Social media post by authorities in the city of Palmdale, north of Los Angeles.

Dr Swain said the post fire alone was unlikely to destroy the records or cause widespread damage. But the speed of its spread and the fact that it’s still only mid-June — after two rainy winters — mean Californians should be extra cautious as summer unfolds, he said.

Climate change causes wide swings between precipitation extremes. In California, the whiplash between drought and flooding has been particularly intense in the past few years.

“There’s this cycle between wet and dry conditions,” Dr. Swain said. “We’re used to it.”

However, global warming trends are amplifying the effects of these oscillations, he said.

A record rainy season at the end of 2022 and into 2023 followed years of devastating drought. Heavy rain fell in the summer and fall, when fire danger is usually greatest, and otherwise combustible vegetation was still green and moist.

California also had rain last winter, which spurred even more vegetation growth.

But late spring was warmer in the West, Dr. Temperatures in Las Vegas broke records this month – and turbulent winds are expected to continue.

That heat draws moisture from the grasses and brush that have grown over the past two years, turning them into a thick carpet. The hotter and drier it is, the faster vegetation can become fuel for fires.

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“While the drought conditions are not record at this point, the irony is how much fuel is available,” said Dr. Swain said.

Grasslands burn first because the grasses dry out so quickly, he said. But if warm, dry conditions persist and combine with fearsome fall winds like Southern California’s infamous Santa Ana winds, residents could see an active fire season well into the fall.

Of course, residents of the West are still subject to some odds: Lightning strikes and human accidents helped push California’s 2020 wildfire season from poor to catastrophic.

State and federal officials have stepped up efforts to prevent wildfires, particularly through the use of prescribed burning, the practice of intentionally starting fires — when conditions make them easier to control — to reduce the amount of fuel on the ground.

But regardless of any prevention efforts, climate change is making everything unpredictable and dangerous, Dr. Swain stressed.

“The more adverse the conditions, the more unlucky you’ll be,” he said.

Yan Chuang Contributed report.

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