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California's burning season

Op-Ed

Dry conditions have come early this year, putting residents in fire-prone areas on edge.

May 08, 2013|By Jaime O'Neill

This week, on Facebook, someone posted one of those preprinted witticisms that vie with cute kittens for the attention of people sharing stuff: "I don't know where YOU live, but the weather here is somewhere between bipolar and psychotic this year."

I live in the woods in Northern California at an elevation of 2,500 feet. In my backyard, fenced to keep the deer out, there are 30 rosebushes. Most years, the first flush of roses comes at the end of May, but there are a couple hundred roses in full bloom out back, an unusual sight at this elevation this early in the season. Cal Fire reports that it has responded to more than 680 wildfires this year, 200 more than the average for this time of year. Firefighters were battling a stubborn blaze not far from us as I was writing this. Meanwhile, in Ventura County, more than 1,000 firefighters were battling the Springs fire, which made the national news and eventually burned 28,000 acres. That was the largest of several fires in Southern California.

It clouded over here Saturday, and then drizzled, with the temperature dropping 25 to 30 degrees from the previous week. From all reports, the lower temperatures, calmer winds and light rain offered a serious assist to what was happening in Southern California too.

EDITORIAL: Fire season comes early

The reprieve in the fire danger is welcome, north and south, but we're in for it nonetheless, especially those of us who live in the heavily wooded high country, between the flatlands and the timberline. The merry month of May has barely begun, but it doesn't feel so merry up here where the smoke hung heavy in the air just a few days ago, ominous and laden with anxiety about the days to come. In a normal year, the fire anxiety doesn't really amp up until July. That's when those of us who live in the Sierra or in the canyons of the coastal ranges are left to white-knuckle our days, uneasy at the sounds of helicopters or planes overhead as they work the fires that always come.

The latest fires were a preview of coming attractions, summer conflagrations that have been in production through the unusually dry winter. Though the duff has been dampened by very light rain over the weekend, the amount of moisture is insignificant. Unless the weather patterns become truly psychotic, we won't see much more rain.

Last week, the Department of Water Resources released the worrisome news that the water content of this season's snowpack is only 17% of normal, and the Sacramento Bee featured a picture of a Water Resources employee taken at Echo Summit, elevation 7,382 feet. It looked drier than Marco Rubio's throat up there, and on the even higher ridge in the background of the picture, there was no snow on peaks where snow is usually seen through July.

The term "Golden State" doesn't evoke images of prospectors with gold pans for those of us who live where argonauts once sought good luck. For us, it is a descriptive phrase for how the hills turn from green to gold as the seasons change.

Deep in these woods, meth cookers go about their work in mobile-home labs set far back on rutted dirt roads. An explosion at one of these places could spell disaster for homeowners farther down the ridges. In the more populated small towns, cigarette smokers dangle their arms out the windows of their trucks, shielding their children from the secondhand smoke, and occasionally being reckless when disposing of their smoldering cigarette butts. A spark thrown from a chain saw can cause a flare-up that can burn untold acres of timber. The exhaust pipe of a riding lawn mower can ignite pine needles or dry grass.

A hundred kinds of human carelessness can set off unimaginable consequences for homeowners, for wildlife and for an ecosystem that may never have been a wise place for sizable concentrations of people to live.

Meanwhile, as global warming asserts its costs, the fire season lengthens with each passing year. And so we hunker down to wait out another fire season, hoping to be here when the first rains of autumn bring relief, until the cycle starts again.

Jaime O'Neill is a writer in Northern California.

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