Two small blazes burning through Northern California have grown at breathtaking speed to form a massive inferno, quickly becoming the largest active wildfire in the state. It is only a few thousand acres of charred land away from setting a new mark for destruction.
The twin wildfires, collectively known as the Mendocino Complex Fire, have together more than doubled in size in just the past four days and burned through 273,664 acres or 427 square miles of parched land – an area almost the size of Los Angeles. By Monday, it has become the second-largest California wildfire on record, surpassing the size of a massive blaze that killed 15 people in 2003 in San Diego County.
As wildfires ravaged the Golden State, President Donald Trump weighed in, firing off tweets that seem to point fingers, not at the toll of climate change, but at California’s environmental laws and use of water resources.
As of Monday, the Mendocino Complex Fire shows little sign of slowing down. Fueled by low humidity, triple-digit temperatures and winds blowing across wide swaths of tinder-dry vegetation, the conflagration has expanded to three counties, surrounded an entire river and parts of neighboring reservoirs, and destroyed and damaged nearly 170 homes and other structures.
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“There’s some challenges that firefighters are facing near the fire and in the area of the fire. We have strong, erratic winds and what that’s doing is blowing embers and it’s spreading the fire,” Capt. Thanh Nguyen, a spokesman for a Southern California fire department who’s acting as spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said Monday. “You got steep terrain that makes it difficult for firefighters.”
Typically, temperatures dip and humidity rises overnight, giving fire crews a window to slow down the spread of the wildfires. But Nguyen said these have not happened in the affected areas.
The Mendocino Complex Fire began a little more than a week ago with two neighboring fires burning through only 9,500 acres of land, then rapidly spreading – at one point, by nearly 30,000 acres within hours. The two fires, which have threatened more than 9,000 structures, have not merged, but officials are counting them as one.
The Ranch Fire, the bigger of the two blazes that make up the Mendocino Complex Fire, has continued to grow in multiple directions, threatening communities in its path, according to Cal Fire. It has burned through 225,000 acres – nearly twice its size on Friday.
The smaller fire, known as River Fire, is more contained and has grown by only a few thousand acres over the weekend.
Firefighters are unlikely to see some respite. Temperatures will slightly dip to the low 90s and high 80s this week, but no rain is in the forecast.
“We’re experiencing the same thing every day, which is our afternoon winds and high winds in the area,” said Tricia Austin, a spokeswoman for the Mendocino Complex Fire. “Everything is still dry.”
Seventeen wildfires are burning up and down California. If the Mendocino Complex Fire continues to grow, it could become the largest wildfire the state has seen in nine decades, surpassing the Thomas Fire, which burned through nearly 282,000 acres of land in December 2017 in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Further north in the Redding area, the Carr Fire, which is now 45 percent contained, has charred more than 163,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. Officials have confirmed that six people, including two firefighters and a woman and her two great-grandchildren, have died. According to media reports, a seventh person – a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. employee – also died in the Carr Fire. The utility has not responded to a request for comment.
In a pair of tweets that puzzled experts, Trump said the wildfires are worsened by “bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized.”
“It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean,” the president tweeted Sunday. “Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!”
Trump doubled down Monday, saying that California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, “must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North” instead of “foolishly” diverting them into the Pacific Ocean.
“Can be used for fires, farming and everything else,” the president said. “Think of California with plenty of Water – Nice!”
Several fire experts, however, said the comments don’t address the main factor in fire severity: human-caused climate change.
“Extreme droughts and high winds are increasing as climate is warming,” said Monica Turner, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has spent three decades researching fires at Yellowstone National Park. “That’s the ultimate driver behind what’s happening in California.”
A 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that climate change was responsible for more than half of the documented increases in fuel aridity in western forests and had doubled the amount of land burned since 1984.
John Abatzoglou, a University of Idaho climatologist who was the lead author on that study, called the president’s statement “confusing, if not completely incoherent.”
Water management is a long-standing issue in California. The diversion of water away from rivers and into agricultural lands has allowed the state’s farmers to flourish, but it also has destroyed critical habitat for salmon and other species. Water diversion also contributes to increased salinity of delta ecosystems. In July, California’s State Water Resources Control Board released a draft plan for an important watershed in the northern part of the state that would limit the amount of water used for agriculture.
But that’s “a totally separate issue” from fire management, said William Stewart, a forestry specialist at the University of California at Berkeley. The rivers and lakes from which fire crews get water to drop on fires are full. “There’s no shortage of water for firefighting.”
Contrary to the president’s comments, water diversion refers to the redirection of water for agricultural purposes. Rivers naturally flow into the ocean.
The second part of Trump’s Sunday tweet – “Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!” – seems to refer to the practice of thinning, by which land managers selectively cut down certain trees to improve the overall health of a forest.
Thinning can help reduce fire severity by limiting fuel, Stewart said, but the president’s tweet misses some important nuance. In a paper published in the journal BioScience in January, Stewart and his colleagues found that thinning happens more frequently on private land – which falls under California’s jurisdiction – than on federal land, which is managed by the Forest Service. In addition, “the rates of mortality from fire, insects, and disease are about three times as high on national forest lands as they are on private lands regulated under California’s strict environmental laws,” he said.
Evan Westrup, Brown’s spokesman, said the president’s tweets do not “merit a response.”
Brown’s office announced Saturday that the White House has approved a request for a presidential major disaster declaration that would help fire victims in Shasta County, which has been ravaged by the Carr Fire. The declaration would provide federal assistance, such as housing and food aid, counseling and medical services.
More than 14,000 personnel from California and elsewhere in the country are fighting wildfires across the state.
The Pentagon announced Monday that it will send about 200 soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to help with the firefighting efforts. The soldiers will be trained and will undergo a certification process before they are deployed to California next weekend. They will work with experienced civilian firefighters.