The Southern California fires are part of an incredibly long and destructive wildfire season

Business Insider | Dec 7, 2017, 04.26PM IST

California wildfires December 2017

REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Some live stock animals try to keep away from the flames after an early-morning Creek Fire broke out in the Kagel Canyon area in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.

  • The devastating wildfires tearing through Southern California are happening during an especially bad fire season out west.
  • Earlier this year, California saw its deadliest fire disaster in history.
  • These fires are worse than normal at least partially because it has been so hot and dry in California during what should be the wet season.

Wildfires are tearing across Southern California, forcing more than 200,000 people to flee from their homes in and around Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

It's an out-of-control situation and only getting worse, with peak fire conditions expected to last through at least Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

These devastating blazes come in a particularly bad year for fires. Earlier this fall, Northern California experienced the deadliest fire disaster in state history. And throughout the west, it has been a disturbingly destructive and long wildfire season.

"This one, in particular, has been a longer season. It really hasn't stopped since the fall of 2016," Chris Wilcox of the National Interagency Fire Center told NPR's Linda Wertheimer on Weekend Edition in September.

As the ongoing disaster in Southern California shows, things haven't let up. For those looking for an explanation of what's making the season so bad, there are a number of factors. It's the season that wildfires typically break out in Southern California. But exceptionally hot and dry conditions combined with normal factors have put parts of the state into "uncharted territory" when it comes to fire risk, according to a presentation by Alex Tardy of the National Weather Service San Diego Office.

What's making this such a bad year for fires

Normally, high-pressure weather systems force winds to whip down through Southern California in the fall and winter. These Santa Ana winds typically peak in December or January, according to Tardy's presentation. This year, they're particularly intense, with more than 80 mph winds spreading blazes far faster than they can be contained.

california fires


Embers blow from a tree shortly before it fell down near burned cars as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California.

"There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds," California Fire said about the Thursday forecast, Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Serna said on Twitter.

What's unusual about this year is that the region has seen one of the hottest and driest starts ever to what should be the wet season.

Temperatures are about 15 degrees above normal for this time of year, according to meteorologist Eric Holthaus, who recently reported that Los Angeles has received just 0.11 inches of rain since October 1.

While a number of factors may have played a role in the specific weather patterns seen over Southern California over the past few months, in general, experts say that climate change has played a role in making wildfire season longer and more extreme.

The amount of land burned in the US since 1984 is double what would have been expected without the effects of climate change in that period, according to one study. And the average wildfire season in the west now lasts at least two and a half months longer than it did in the early 1970s, according to WXshift, a project of Climate Central.

In California, scientists have reported that climate change exacerbated the multi-year drought that ended when the rains came last winter. Those rains created an abundance of new growth that then dried out over an exceptionally hot summer. New growth tends to be brushy and flammable - and it can be blown a long way, which spreads fires further and creates new ones. All of that new vegetation plus older trees that never received enough moisture to fully recover from the drought made for a bumper crop of fire fuel.

Right now, the National Weather Service expects critical conditions to continue through at least the weekend. But it'll likely be some time before there's any rain in the region. As of Tuesday, the Global Forecast System didn't show any measurable precipitation in the state of California for at least 16 days.

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