INTERNATIONAL

California wildfires growing bigger

All-out effort:A firefighter trying to douse flames as they push towards homes in Madera County, California.AFPJOSH EDELSON  

When it comes to California wildfires, it now takes days, not decades, to produce what had been seen as a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

Last weekend, a fire burning in California’s Sierra National Forest exploded in size, trapping hundreds of Labor Day holiday campers who could only be rescued by helicopters that made a series of white-knuckle flights into the smoke. Fire officials said they’d never seen a fire move so fast in forestland — 24 km in a day.

On Wednesday, a wildfire in Plumas National Forest northeast of San Francisco spread 40 km in a day and devoured an estimated 1,036 sq. km.

In between those events, a massive fire in Monterey County doubled in size overnight, trapping 14 firefighters who had to deploy their emergency shelters; one was critically injured.

They are only the latest examples of what a half-dozen fire experts agreed is more extreme fire behaviour driven by drought and warming temperatures they attribute to climate change. Among the most concerning developments is that fast-moving wildfires leave less time for warnings or evacuations.

A prime example is the so-called Creek Fire in Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park, which exploded through miles of drought- and beetle-killed timber, moving so fast that it trapped hundreds of campers.

"When you have a fire run 15 miles in one day, in one afternoon, there’s no model that can predict that,” U.S. Forest Service forester Steve Lohr said. “The fires are behaving in such a way that we’ve not seen.”

California already has seen a record 10,100 sq. km burn and it’s only now is entering what traditionally is the most dangerous time for fires. Labor Day weekend brought record-breaking temperatures across the state that exacerbated what already are drought conditions in a large swath of the state.