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Environment & Science

Expert: ‘Blue Cut Fire is the new normal’




A firefighter watches the Blue Cut wildfire burning near Cajon Pass, north of San Bernardino, California on August 16, 2016.
A firefighter watches the Blue Cut wildfire burning near Cajon Pass, north of San Bernardino, California on August 16, 2016.
Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

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The Blue Cut Fire surged Monday to over 30,000 acres, chasing more than 80,000 people from their homes in San Bernardino County, all in just over 24 hours. 

Several other major, though smaller,  fires are burning across the state. The Chimney Fire has burned 7,300 acres north of San Luis Obispo, and the Clayton Fire northwest of Sacramento has scorched nearly 4,000 acres. The massive Sand Fire near Santa Clarita and the sizable Pilot Fire also in San Bernardino County have just recently been contained.

This particularly devastating start to fire season has many wondering whether this is the ‘new normal’ in California.

Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, has a blunt answer: Yes. 

He said the Californians we build and live can worsen fire risks, and what we might be able to expect in fire seasons to come. Speaking with Airtalk's Patt Morrison, Miller emphasized that the problems that have exacerbated the Blue Cut Fire are in part man-made.

This fire season has been particularly bad, he said, but the Blue Cut Fire could be just the beginning.

“It already has been a [rough] fire season,” Miller said. “But this is only August. If the heat which often accelerates in September and October winds up with wind and low humidities, and, truthfully, human error and arson, this could be a difficult time for us.”

Interview highlights

Are we seeing the ‘new normal’ in California fires?

We are. We haven’t seen [fire-nadoes] yet — that is the explosive impact of the fire producing its own climate — though I suspect that’s partly true and that’s partly why the 1300 people who are battling this blaze are having a hard time gaining control of it.

The new normal — which is intense, hot and fast-moving fires — also comes together with normal. This is a mediterranean fire zone; We live in one, like Sydney and Cape Town and other places around the world. We should expect fire to be natural. What’s less natural, less normal, is the speed with which these fires are moving [and] the intensity of them. The longer fire seasons beginning in January is something that is in fact quite new.

Are we making fires worse by ‘denying nature’?

I think in part we make them worse by denying the naturalness of fire in Southern California or anywhere in this state and other places. But we’ve also made them unnatural in another sense.  Let’s go back to the numbers of evacuations. Who knew that there were 80,000 people roughly in the Cajon Pass area? You can see it when you drive through but the numbers are a little shocking. That tells us that this is really not a rural area. This is in fact an urbanized landscape. That’s why we’re having problems evacuating people and also getting firefighters in there. Despite the concentration of people, there are essentially two ways in and out of there -- [Highway] 138 and I-15. If those get shut down, all of a sudden other things happened that are difficult.

It isn’t just about the trucks and the cars that can’t get through, though that’s important. That’s also the space where [electric] power grids flow through and into Los Angeles. It’s where rail lines are located. It’s where oil and gas mains are flowing into this region with oil and gas that drive our economy. So, this is a really fraught landscape that has to be defended from fire to be sure, but is also adds to the dilemmas of those who are trying to put this fire out.

Maybe we need to have a better appreciation of how fires interact with all of the infrastructure that makes this place operate -- water, oil, gas, energy, as well as trucking. Southern California and its ports are some of the most important sources of goods and services for the rest of the United States.

Look, the Pilot Fire was just controlled not too long ago. Last summer there was a big explosive fire in the Cajon Pass again, which shut down the 15 again. This is what happens. It’s now becoming more and more dangerous because we’ve concentrated so much of our infrastructure and people in this narrow wind tunnel.

Is this fire earlier in the season and bigger than you would expect?

I don’t know that it’s bigger. I would say also that part of what we’re seeing as part of this new normal is the way in which drought and climate change are also interacting with these landscapes. For us in Southern California where we got virtually none of the rains from the Godzilla El Nio that was predicted and the drying out for the next couple of years suggest to me that drought, climate change, and fire are working in tandem and making our fire seasons a lot more complicated and our capacity to work with them and manage them a bit more difficult.

Is this a people problem?

If local planning commissions and zoning offices are going to, as they seem to do, facilitate the construction of homes almost anywhere that one can buy property, they’re not doing their due diligence. Let alone the property owners, many of whom understandably love those ridgelines, adore those canyons, and take on the risk. We’re supporting them collectively through insurance and other mechanisms. It does seem to me that the Blue Cut Fire, like all of the others, really poses a policy question for us that’s similar to what has been resolved in the Mississippi River Valley and places like that. We don’t allow people to build in floodplains. I think we need to have a conversation in Southern California at least about whether we should be allowing folks and facilitating their ability to live within the firezones.

This interview has been edited for clarity.