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Blazes have behaved in unusual ways this summer as they’ve consumed abundant dry vegetation amid the state’s ongoing drought.
While firefighters are getting a handle on some of the wildfires burning in California, Gov. Jerry Brown warns that the worst weeks of the fire season are yet to come, and that the treacherous blazes the state has seen recently could become standard fare due to climate change.
Wildfires have already scorched tens of thousands of acres in California this year, and more than a dozen large ones continue to burn as much of the state remains tinderbox-dry due to a relentless drought. Large fires are also burning in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington state.
One of the wildfires in Washington turned fatal last week, when it took the lives of three firefighters, and severely injured a fourth.
“The tragic part is, this is probably the shape of things to come,” Brown, a Democrat, said during an interview that aired Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“With climate change changing the climate gradually over time, when we imagine five, or 10, or 20 years out, it is unimaginable what the devastation is gonna be,” he added.
Brown declared a state of emergency on July 31 in response to the wildfire activity in California.
Statistics from the state’s Cal Fire show the agency responded to a total of 4,549 wildfires between Jan. 1 and Aug. 15, which have burned 144,253 acres. And according to the National Interagency Fire Center, California was reporting 14 active large fires as of Aug. 22.
The governor’s remarks on Sunday were not the first time in recent weeks that he has linked the fires to climate change.
“The climate is unstable,” Brown said while speaking with reporters in early August, according The Sacramento Bee. “You can imagine, if the drought continues for a year or several years, California could literally burn up.”
During the “Meet the Press” interview, the governor said that things are “looking better, at least for the moment,” with the status of some of the state’s larger wildfires. But he also pointed out that conditions would remain dangerous in the coming weeks. “We’re just heading into the real center of the season,” he said. “So there’s plenty of risk to come.”
“Our firefighters are stretched very thin,” he added. “We’re using the Army, the National Guard, prisoners, people from as far away as Australia. So, this is serious stuff.”
Brown also noted that some of the fires in the state had exhibited unusual behavior.
Referring to a blaze in Lake County, California, he said: “It was unprecedented. It burnt in every direction, even when the wind wasn’t blowing. So that’s brand new.”
“This fire burnt just because of the dryness of the vegetation,” Brown explained. “We are in a new normal, and we’re going to have to figure out ways to deal with it.”
Increasing prescribed burns to eliminate dry plants, before they can provide fuel for fires, is one way the governor said the state would look to decrease risks.
Earlier this year, wildfire-prone Colorado launched a new center to explore aerial firefighting practices and technology that might help combat the blazes more effectively.
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.