Fire preparation the only option

The seemingly endless outbreak of infernos that enveloped the skies of Northern California with sooty smoke since late June is at last being fought toward closure, although several of the biggest blazes — Butte County, Big Sur and Santa Barbara County — still are mostly uncontained and continue ravaging through thousands of acres.

During the worst of the firestorms, an army of nearly 19,000 firefighters was battling almost 1,800 simultaneous wildfires. Today only 323 blazes remain active, a tribute to the stubbornly heroic efforts of fire crews working around the clock under stifling heat through near-impenetrable terrain.

Northern California’s record-breaking wildfire onslaught is statistically astounding: An unprecedented regional sweep of near-rainless lightning storms bombarded bone-dry woodlands with upwards of 8,000 lightning strikes. Firefighters converged from 41 states to answer the aid call, while hundreds of California National Guard troops were mobilized to the fire lines. More than 500 tanker aircraft and helicopters dropped water and retardant chemicals.

To date, more than 500,000 acres have been charred and hundreds of evacuees temporarily fled. But thanks to the determination and backbreaking work of the firefighters, only some 100 buildings were destroyed and no fatalities were recorded.

Locally, our closest threat came early. The 300-acre Brisbane fire introduced the Bay Area to a whole new level of persistently smoky air. One hundred firefighters extinguished fast-moving, 100-foot-long lines of flame within 24 hours. Their victory preserved every endangered home — not to mention saving the line of PG&E towers across San Bruno Mountain that deliver much of San Francisco’s electricity.

This Northern California fire season started earlier than ever, following a 114-year record low springtime rainfall. Woodlands fire danger usually does not peak until September when the dry, hot Santa Ana winds start blowing from inland. Last year’s California wildfires were rated onlyslightly worse than average. But still they destroyed 2,000 homes and caused more than $3 billion in damages.

According to prevalent scientific opinion, thanks to global warming we all can expect to continue experiencing unusually extreme weather of every kind. Here in the western United States, longer-lasting severe droughts with heightened fire risks will be the most likely threat. This means we can no longer afford to delay difficult decisions about water allocation and individual conservation requirements.

With wildfire dangers worsening, the public must also start showing more common sense than ever about careful outdoors behavior. Although most of this current “Ring of Fire” is attributed to the big June lightning storm, at least one major blaze started when a parked vehicle’s hot exhaust pipe torched a grass field.

Large-scale firestorms and water shortages are likely to become more commonplace features of California life for the foreseeable future. Get used to it; there is no other choice.

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