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California Wine Country Wildfires Kill 15, Burn 80,000 Acres in 18 Hours

Bureau of Land Management California/Flickr

At least 15 people were dead, 200 were missing, more than 20,000 were evacuated, hundreds were sent to hospital for burns or smoke inhalation, and Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency across eight counties early this week as “Diablo Winds” sparked more than a dozen wildfires in Napa and Sonoma, the popular “wine country” north of San Francisco.

“This is really serious. It’s moving fast,” Brown told a news conference Monday. “The heat, the lack of humidity, and the winds are all driving a very dangerous situation and making it worse. It’s not under control by any means.”

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On the same day that Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency moved to abandon [2] the centrepiece of America’s program to contain its greenhouse gas emissions, the Washington Post observes [3], “more than eight million acres have burned in at least four states” so far in 2017, “raising questions from across the political spectrum about the connection [4] to climate change.” As of Monday, the latest California blazes had burned 107,000 acres, including an astonishing 80,000 acres in just 18 hours, according to [5] Wildfire Today.

“Fanned by winds gusting in excess of 50 miles per hour, upward of a dozen wildfires erupted Sunday night in the hills north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento,” writes WT correspondent Jason Pohl. “Already under a red flag warning, thousands of residents who went to bed Sunday gearing up for another week instead woke in the middle of the night and raced through ember-filled streets in a desperate effort to escape.”

By evening, 15 “wind-whipped fires” had ignited across nine counties, more than 2,000 homes had been destroyed, and “many of the fires remained 0 percent contained, despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters from crews across the state.”

“In Santa Rosa,” the New York Times reports [6], fire “gutted a Hilton hotel and flattened the Journey’s End retirement community. Ash fell like snowflakes, and a pall of white smoke across the city blotted out the sun.” The description matched what was faced by tens of thousands of British Columbians [7] who lost or were forced from homes earlier in the fire season, as that province’s air was similarly hazed in toxic smoke [8].

Firefighters were hoping for some relief from prevailing weather patterns sometime Tuesday. But apart from the immediate and overwhelming human impact, a longer-running crisis will have a significant impact on a local wine industry that produces 13% of California’s wine, part of a sector that generates US$55 billion in annual economic activity for the state and $110 billion across the U.S., the Post notes.

On Grist, meteorologist and climate hawk Eric Holthaus explains that October is often a bad month for wildfires in California. “It’s this time of year when a combination of strong offshore winds and low humidity can quickly fan a seemingly innocent spark into a raging inferno,” he writes [9].

“These winds are usually formed by a strong inland high pressure centre, which pushes air down mountainsides and through canyons, causing it to warm up and dry out—a perfect environment for fast-growing fires,” Holthaus wrote Monday. “A 2015 study said climate change is making these wind events more frequent and more severe in California.”