By Becky Clark
A primary message coming from Sacramento Wednesday, Aug. 1, about one week after the Cranston Fire was lit by an arsonist, was not positive — that living with the constant threat of wildfires in California and throughout the Southwest is the new norm.
Several authorities, including Gov. Jerry Brown, spoke at a press conference that morning at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, on the numerous fires across the state.
California Department of Forestry/Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlock said 16 major fires currently are burning more than 320,000 acres in California with 32,000 residents evacuated and 13,000 firefighters on the line.
Seventeen states, from as far away as Maine and Florida, and several countries are assisting. “Our goal is to ensure we are planning for the days ahead; not what’s happening today but what’s to come,” Pimlock said. “We must meet the requirements down the road.”
Pimlock and others emphasized that this is only the beginning of August. “Are we sure we have the resources … so we can meet the threats coming down the road,” he said.
“We’ve been seeing extreme fire come early in the year. These kinds of conditions — in the past decades, we might have seen a fire like we’re seeing right now in August or September. We are routinely now seeing fires reach 100,000 acres several times in one month, and it’s July.
“So, we have a long way to go in this fire season, and, as we saw last year, fire season can go right up through December and into early parts of the winter. So, we’re prepared for the long haul.
“Cal Fire is bringing on additional seasonal firefighters. We’re in the process of bringing them back as we speak. They will not only provide additional capacity on our fire engines, but will provide … relief so we can sustain this right through the remainder of the fire season,” Pimlock said.
“Fires are now a part of our more ordinary experiences,” said Gov. Jerry Brown. “The predictions that things would get much drier and hotter are occurring, and that will continue. We’re in quite a cycle.”
He said past predictions of warming and more fires occurring in the years around 2040 to 2050 are occurring now instead of later. “And you can expect, unfortunately, that to keep intensifying in California and throughout the Southwest. We’re part of that process of the Mediterranean climate that is being impacted by the changing weather …
“There will be more fires. Soil is drier, vegetation is drier. It makes the perfect kindling and these wind events … tornado-type behavior is occurring and we’re learning as we go,” Brown added.
He said, with fire officials nodding as they stood behind him listening, that if they knew today what they will know five years from now, they may have had a better handle on the situation.
“ … this is unprecedented. But we’re living in a new normal, in a drought that will continue … and more fires each year for a very long time because it’s going to be a while before we shift the weather back to where it was …
“We’re being surprised. Every year is teaching fire authorities new lessons. We’re living in unchartered territory since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago. We haven’t had this kind of heat condition and it’s going to continue getting worse …
“We’re in for a really rough ride and it’s going to get expensive … We have to get creative … This is a bad situation not just for California but for people all over America and all over the world.”
He said the Rainy Day Fund money for this year to fight these fires is a very small part of the budget, “but it is growing fast, and it will continue to grow.”
He expects there may be a year or two when fires are not so intense, “but over a decade or so, we’re going to have more fires, more destructive fires and more billions will have to be spent on it.”
California wasn’t designed to support 40 million people but only a few thousand, Brown added. That many people and 32 million vehicles that burn oil and gas will mean California will “have to adapt,” he said. “We’re going to change our technology but, in the meantime, we’re going to have to spend a hell of a lot of money, and there’s going to have to be a lot of unpleasant events and suffering as a result.”
He mentioned his newly appointed Forest Task Force and that it is moving in that direction, “but I think in the years to come, you’re going to see a lot more expenditures on prevention and adaptation, and helping people avoid these kinds of fires or escape from them.” Idyllwild’s Sen. Jeff Stone is on that committee.
When asked what the biggest change was between wildfires during his tenure as governor in the 1970s compared to today, he said, “Fires seen today are so much longer and fires are so much bigger. That’s it in a nutshell.”
California Highway Patrol Commissioner Warren Stanley spoke, saying his agency has “three phases: traffic control, evacuation and patrol of areas that have been evacuated to keep looters out.” Early when the wildfires began, nearly 200 CHP personnel were assigned to various fires.
California National Guard Maj. Gen. Dave Baldwin’s troops were assisted by soldiers and airmen from the Arizona and New Mexico National Guards providing more than 1,200 troops for “a broad range of military support on ground and air manned and unmanned surveillance systems to assist Cal Fire with fire mapping and to assist OES and FEMA with damage assessments.” NG also provided military police and Air National Guard security police officers for looter deterrents and repopulation efforts.
As to Brown’s wildfire liability proposal being drafted by a special joint legislative committee next week, he hopes they will “reward utilities for doing the right thing but make them liable when they don’t take the steps that common sense and prudence would warrant.”
Earlier, Brown said, “Nature is very powerful. We’re fighting nature; we’re not on the side of nature with the amount of material we’re putting into the environment, and that material traps heat, the heat fosters fires and fires keep burning, and we will have to mitigate.”