King Fire points to California's drought-driven fire future

Years of drought, plus sharp wind changes and steep terrain, are making California’s King Fire particularly difficult. Such dangerous blazes can move very rapidly, experts warn.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A firefighter waters down flames approaching a containment line, while fighting the King Fire near Fresh Pond, Calif., Thursday.

One of the largest of 28 active wild fires now burning across California is the King Fire, about 45 miles northeast of Sacramento, sending smoke and ash hundreds of miles and spreading fast because of sharp wind changes and steep terrain.

By Thursday, the blaze had burned through 111 square miles as winds rose to 25 mph and continued to feed its rapid expansion, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). It was 5 percent contained.

The fire exhibits many, if not all, of the characteristics that fire experts say characterize the circumstances and challenge of wildfires in modern, drought-ravaged California.

“The key take-away from the King fire is the speed with which wildfires can move,” says Char Miller, director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona College. “And its speed signals that wind – and not just low humidity and tinder-dry forests – is the defining energy of these dangerous blazes.”

Because of that speed, those who live in the fire zones – in canyons, on ridges, and nestled within the foothills – must take extraordinary care of their homes and their surrounding property, Mr. Miller says. “Creating defensible space is essential for the homeowners’ protection and for the firefighters who race uphill as we flee downhill.”

Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University in Phoenix, says the 2,500-plus firefighters dispatched to the area are trying to prevent a replay of 2013’s Rim Fire, which started on August 17, 2013, and wasn’t fully contained until Oct. 24 – becoming the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada.

Ron Steffens, who chairs the editorial board at Wildfire Magazine, says the fire reflects conditions brought on by the state’s three-year drought, the worst since records have been kept, meaning once flames take hold, they burn hotter and are much harder to fight.

“The depth of the drought means that nearly all the fuels are available to burn, and burn with greater intensity and speed as it moves into more fuels,” Mr. Steffens says. He and others say they are watching to see how both officials and residents respond to the drill of evacuation.

“The first priority is safety: To be ready to leave the fire zone if your community is threatened,” says Steffens. “And to be certain that firefighters protect their own safety.” 

Many of the more than 2,000 threatened homes were in Pollock Pines, 60 miles east of Sacramento. Though the fire grew substantially late Wednesday, it burned mostly into wilderness land in the El Dorado National Forest away from the town, according to Cal Fire. The blaze was burning about 20 miles from the Desolation Wilderness, a popular hiking area south of Lake Tahoe.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency late Wednesday, which allows funds for the two fires, and added that he had also secured federal grants to fight each of them.

Joy Barney, public information officer for the El Dorado National Forest, gives residents in the area high marks for cooperation.

“This is what is consuming all of our attention right now – making sure people understand which routes are closed going in and out,” she says, noting the dramatic wind shifts that tripled the fire’s acreage in just a few hours Wednesday night.

Ms. Barney and other officials are directing residents to two websites, CAL FIRE and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s blog and webpage, which immediately post the latest information. Twenty-eight hundred people have left their homes, officials say.

“Residents have been very cooperative and appreciative of our efforts,” Barney says, “which is really a load off the mind – because if people stay in their homes, it takes time, attention and personnel to deal with saving them … time which could be better spent fighting the fire.”

Cal Fire’s Alyssa Smith says the most important thing to understand about the King Fire is that strong winds have produced erratic fire movements that have played a huge role in the firefighting efforts. “By the numbers you can see that it went from 27,930 to 70,994 acres overnight,” she says. “So the steep terrain in combination with the strong winds have been a huge factor.”

At a press conference Wednesday, officials said they had arrested a man on suspicion of arson. Local resident Wayne Allen Huntsman is suspected of starting the fire east of Sacramento on Saturday, authorities said. He has several prior felony convictions.

Some weather forecasters predicted rain in the area Thursday, though gustier, erratic winds also were expected, and there was a chance of lightning. But many experts say the longer-term challenges will linger far after the fire, increased by the growing popularity of building homes in the wildland/urban interface.

“Unfortunately, our problems will not be over when the King Fire is contained,” says Dominik Kulakowski, associate professor of geography at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “There is an urgent need to consider how we can prepare for a future that is likely to be characterized not only by shortages of water resources, but also by increasingly high risks of severe wildfires and insect outbreaks.”

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