Writing early warning stories on the potential for catastrophic wildfires in Southern California during the summer and early fall is almost boilerplate. But this year, a higher than normal risk factor existed because of an unusually dry winter that led up to the usual Santa Ana winds of September and October.
Quoting an expert, SFGate.com, the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, reported in early June that, “The driest winter in decades has left much of the state with dry vegetation that could fuel a ferocious fire season.”
Prior to the Cedar Fire of 2003, which many call the most catastrophic in the state’s history , some say it was the second worst , high precipitation during the winter fostered vegetation growth, which reportedly added fuel to the Cedar Fire and others that broke out following that particularly dry summer.
The wildfires that hit San Diego County on the weekend of Oct. 20 , fires raged from Santa Barbara County south , are now taking top billing as the worst in the state’s history.
Whether first or second in the hierarchy of firestorms, the shock of this catastrophic event like others, including the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Sept. 11, 2001, will eventually fade, and those who weren’t directly affected will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news.
When Kennedy was shot I was a senior in high school, swinging a tennis racket , at the air mostly , during P.E. class. It wasn’t until I was going to my next class that I heard about it from the class clown, whom I automatically assumed had sunk to a new joke telling low.
The Friday before last, I’d taken a three-day weekend, threw the top back on my convertible, shoved a Simon and Garfunkel mix in the CD player and headed north to Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley.
The next day when I awoke, a brown haze from a nearby wildfire was looming in the distance over Santa Barbara, but not before heading back home early Sunday morning was it evident that a series of firestorms had broken out throughout Southern California.
Following the warnings and news about the current fires and devastation they are bringing, there will inevitably be stories about the lessons learned and the lessons to be learned.
The Santa Ana winds certainly occur with greater frequency than I ever recall as a kid, but that’s another story.
When I wrote this midday on Monday, Oct. 22, fires had yet to be contained to any degree, entire subdivisions were being devastated and the number of people being evacuated , 350,000 , was almost four times the population of the city of Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, the question of how many reinforcements were on the way and when they’d arrive was still unanswered, as was the question of how many fires were accidental and how many were attributed to arson.
Whether the politicians have answers or not, they will nevertheless use this event as an opportunity to make salient sound bites.
Two things are certain, though. This story has no happy ending and it’s too close, just four years almost to the day, to the Cedar Fire of 2003.
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