As California enters its fifth year of severe drought, an ongoing wildfire in Santa Barbara County has prompted a state of emergency — and has some experts wondering whether this summer is only just the beginning of a rash of severe wildfires across the state to come.
Since the Scherpa fire began on Wednesday evening in Los Padres National Forest, the blaze has grown to more than 4,600 acres, and is only 5 percent contained so far. Much of the area ablaze throughout the Santa Ynez Mountains hasn’t experienced fire in more than 60 years, officials report. Drought conditions there are literally adding fuel to the growing fire.
“The fuels out there are drought-stressed. There’s a lot of tree mortality out there,” Robert Baird, supervisor for Los Padres National Forest, told the Los Angeles Times. “The drought is making an already pretty volatile situation not any better.”
More than 1,200 responders from the United States Forest Service, CAL FIRE, Santa Barbara County Fire, and local departments from surrounding counties are involved. There haven’t been injuries reported, and the cause of the fire is still under investigation. Nearly 400 phone lines throughout the area have received mandatory evacuation calls.
“The rain we received this winter and spring has been great, but with over 29 million dead trees due to the drought and bark beetle, our fire conditions still remain elevated,” Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director, said in a May press release. “While our firefighters are preparing for what could be another busy fire season, this week is an important reminder that all Californians must do their part and be ready.”
There have already been more than 700 wildfires throughout the state this year. This map below, courtesy of Graphiq, highlights how many acres were burned in California from 2009 to 2015:
Powerful Sundowner winds topping 40 miles per hour had fire crews working late into Thursday night and early Friday morning, according to CAL FIRE. The down-slope wind gusts are created when drier, hotter air blows over the eastern Santa Ynez Mountains, displacing the cooler, wetter air of the Pacific Coast on the west, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. The winds can reach hurricane-level speeds. Because of the gusts, the California Highway Patrol was forced to shut down portions of Highway 101 on Thursday night. The winds are likely to cause highway closures again periodically throughout the weekend, as the winds are expected to peak Saturday night.