In the last 10 months, fires have killed more than 40 people and burned down thousands of homes. The devastation began with the wine country fires in October, and just two months later fires in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties became the largest in recorded state history. The record lasted only eight months.
The fires are fueled by extreme heat and parched vegetation from years of drought. And firefighters have repeatedly been vexed by the soaring temperatures and rugged terrain of the current fires.
Scientists say climate change is a central factor in creating the atmospheric ingredients that make wildfires like California’s more extreme. Warmer global temperatures, driven by the greenhouse gases emitted from human activity like burning coal and driving cars, has led to droughts as well as more extreme heat waves that last longer. The result: increasingly intense fire seasons that start earlier and last longer.
“You combine drought and heat, you get record wildfires. It’s not rocket science,” said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.
As officials rush to respond to the latest fires, they are also deploying new strategies: using complex analyses of weather patterns and historical data, which officials here describe as their “crystal ball,” to predict where the next fire will be, and sending forces to be on standby. In recent weeks, officials on five occasions have dispatched firefighters to locations where they believed fires could erupt, and in one case, in Santa Barbara, one did.
“It’s a big chess game,” Mr. Ghilarducci said.
And even as the fires burn, analysts are already thinking of the mudslides that could come later, as rain in the winter months soaks the scorched earth. Earlier this year, more than 20 people were killed in mudslides that tore through Montecito. So while the fires burn, analysts in the command center are already figuring out where the highest risks are for devastating debris flows.
“It’s sort of the one-two punch of Mother Nature that gets us every year,” Mr. Huston said.