- The Maria Fire exploded to 9,412 acres overnight on a mountaintop in Ventura County, California.
- Over the last two weeks, strong Santa Ana and Diablo winds have helped fires spread across California.
- Another blaze in Ventura County, the Easy Fire, threatened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, but the site was spared because goats had eaten the vegetation around the building to reduce fire risk.
- As the climate warms, California’s wildfire season is getting longer, and weather conditions that bring a risk of wildfires are becoming more common.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A brush fire exploded to 9,412 acres overnight in Ventura County, California.
The blaze, dubbed the Maria Fire, broke out Thursday just after 6 p.m. on a mountain near Somis, California – about 55 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The flames were 0% contained as of Friday evening.
About 8,000 residents are under mandatory evacuation orders and about 2,300 structures are threatened, according to the Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD).
“The end is not yet in sight,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said in a Friday afternoon press conference. “It has been an uphill battle.”
The fire has been fuelled by strong Santa Ana winds. In northern California, similarly powerful gusts (though they’re referred to as the Diablo winds up north) helped the 77,000-acre Kincade Fire grow quickly in Sonoma County.
Over 500 firefighters are battling the Maria Fire, working to protect avocado and citrus crops, high-voltage power lines, and infrastructure in a nearby oil field, according to the VCFD. The flames have destroyed two structures.
“I also want to assure you that this is not the Thomas Fire,” John McNeil, a VCFD assistant chief, said in a press conference Thursday night, referring to a 2017 blaze that spread rapidly across 281,893 acres, destroyed over 1,000 buildings, and caused two deaths.
McNeil added that he expects the Maria Fire to run out of fuel because of where it’s located.
“We’re looking at maybe 12,000 acres at the biggest footprint on this,” he said.
Since then, however, the fire has spread downhill to a river bed.
Humidity has been as low as 4% in the area. Earlier on Friday, forecasters predicted that humidity would increase and winds would die down over the weekend, but now wind gusts up to 35 mph are expected to continue in the area through Saturday.
“With the higher temperatures and the lower humidities, it’s going to make things even more difficult for the firefighters out there,” National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Sirard said in the Friday press conference.
Ventura County Fire Captain Brian McGrath also warned that officials had to temporarily ground a firefighting helicopter on Thursday to avoid drones that people were flying over the fire.
“This created quite a dangerous situation. It’s not only illegal, but it hampers our firefighting efforts,” McGrath said. “Please, anyone in the area with a desire to do such a thing, refrain from doing so.”
He said an investigation into the drone incident is planned, but no arrests had been made as of Friday afternoon.
Maria Fire evacuees can take shelter at the Camarillo Community Centre. The Camarillo Animal Shelter is accepting small pets, and larger animals can go to the Ventura County Fairgrounds or the Earl Warren Showgrounds.
Goats protected the Ronald Reagan Library from a nearby fire
The day before the Maria Fire broke out, another blaze spread across the nearby Simi Valley.
The Easy Fire has burned 1,860 acres since Wednesday. It crept close to the walls of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
But that site was saved by a secret weapon.
Every May, the VCFD brings hundreds of goats to graze around the perimeter of the building, library spokesperson Melissa Giller told USA Today. By eating all the grass, the goats create what’s known as a “fire break” around the library – an area in which flames have little dry vegetation to consume.
Guess who’s back, back again. The goats are back, tell a friend…That’s right the #goats are back at the #ReaganLibrary! They will help clear the brush to assist with fire prevention. ‘Goat’ your cameras and ‘hoof’’ on ‘baaaaaaaaa.’ pic.twitter.com/ACRt2ZvA3S
— RonaldReaganLibrary (@Reagan_Library) May 22, 2018
“The firefighters on the property said that the fire break really helped them because as the fire was coming up that one hill, all the brush has been cleared, basically,” Giller said.
Evacuation orders for the Easy Fire were lifted on Thursday. The blaze was 80% contained as of Friday morning, and the Reagan Library has reopened.
The connection between climate change and wildfires
Individual wildfires can’t be directly attributed to climate change, but accelerated warming increases their likelihood.
“Climate change, with rising temperatures and shifts in precipitation patterns, is amplifying the risk of wildfires and prolonging the season,” the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said in a July release.
That’s because warming leads winter snow to melt sooner in the annual cycle, and hotter air sucks away the moisture from trees and soil, leading to dryer land. This has led wildfire season to get longer: The average wildfire season in the western US lasts 78 days longer than it did 50 years ago, according to the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions.
“We’re really seeing that window expanding, not only earlier into the spring but also later into the fall as things stay drier, longer,” Leah Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser for Humboldt County whose own power has been shut off in the blackouts, previously told Business Insider. “We are at the point where we are in a crisis.”
Decreased rainfall also makes for parched forests that are prone to burning.
A recent study found that the portion of California that burns from wildfires every year has increased more than five-fold since 1972. Nine of the 10 biggest fires in the state’s history have occurred since the year 2003.
In the western US more broadly, large wildfires now burn more than twice the area they did in 1970.
“No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear,” climatologist Park Williams told Columbia University’s Centre for Climate and Life. “Climate is really running the show in terms of what burns.”
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