Californians already struggling with rolling blackouts and sweltering heat are confronting the next crises tied to extreme weather: wildfires and thick haze choking the air.
More than 360 blazes are burning across the state, spurring evacuations in Santa Cruz County and near wine country in the northern part of the state. Smoke blanketed San Francisco Wednesday, parked cars were dusted with ash and air-quality warnings were in effect throughout the Bay Area. Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency as record-breaking temperatures continue to bake the region and resources are stretched.
“We are experiencing fires the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” Newsom said at a press briefing Wednesday.
Dushanbe, TajikistanMost polluted air today, in sensor range
$69.9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q2 2020 57% Carbon-free net power in the U.K., most recent data 0 3 2 1 0 9 ,0 8 7 6 5 4 0 8 7 6 5 4 0 3 2 1 0 9 Soccer pitches of forest lost this hour, most recent data
50,820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data -29.21% Today’s arctic ice area vs. historic average 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 3 2 1 0 9 0 5 4 3 2 1 .0 3 2 1 0 9 0 0 9 8 7 6 0 4 3 2 1 0 0 4 3 2 1 0 0 7 6 5 4 3 0 0 9 8 7 6 Parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere
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All the while, the state is struggling to keep the lights on. Rolling blackouts hit millions of Californians over the weekend, and residents were warned the past two nights to gird for more as the heat wave strained power systems. They were spared as the weather began cooling, people dialed back air conditioners and an unexpected burst of wind-power generation came online. The California Independent System Operator, which runs the grid, said it doesn’t expect any outages Wednesday.
For California, the severe conditions are coming relatively early in its hot, dry wildfire season, portending difficult months ahead as the prospect of bigger blazes loom — at the same time the state is dealing with a pandemic that has killed more than 11,000 residents. Its travails add to 2020’s global tally of extremes and offer a glimpse into the future of a climate-changed world.
While several of California’s large fires in recent years have been caused by high winds and utility equipment, many of the recent blazes were tied to lightning strikes and the extreme weather.
“Dry lightning strikes are hitting everywhere,” Lynette Round, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in an interview Wednesday. “The hot weather has also been tough on firefighters, and it’s been tough to keep up with all these little fires.”
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By Wednesday, a blaze in Napa and Sonoma counties had stretched to more than 46,000 acres, prompting residents to flee. Cal Fire issued evacuation orders late Tuesday in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, where a fire caused by lightning has burned 10,000 acres. In Calaveras County, a fire spread over 1,500 acres and was 10% contained. More blazes broke out in Glenn County and Tehama County.
In Santa Cruz County, more than 21,000 residents were ordered to evacuate and more will need to be prepared to leave Wednesday night, said Jason Hoppin, spokesman for the county’s health services agency.
“We’ve never done anything on this scale, and it’s about to get worse,” Hoppin said. “Winds are picking up and we expect little relief from the nighttime cooling we normally get on the coast. Our resources are limited, and our ability to respond has been hampered by fires all over the state.”
Haze from the smoke could be seen throughout the Bay Area. A “Spare the Air” alert was issued, banning the burning of solid fuel and urging residents to stay indoors.
Meanwhile, the risk of more power outages remain. The California ISO asked for conservation on Wednesday as temperatures are forecast to hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) in Sacramento and 94 degrees inLos Angeles, threatening to pressure the system once again. But the heat is forecast to subside by the end of the week.
The latest blackouts mark the only time outside of the 2000-2001 energy crisis that the state’s grid operator has initiated rotating outages. The move has drawn harsh criticism from industry experts who say the blackouts weren’t necessary. Newsom has ordered an investigation. And despite wind power showing up to save the day Tuesday, the outages have sparked a debate over the reliability of the grid, which has become increasingly dependent on intermittent renewable energy resources.
The heat wave gripping the West Coast stems from a stubborn, high-pressure system that has parked itself across the Great Basin spanning Nevada and other western states. It essentially acts as a lid trapping hot air.
It doesn’t bode well for California’s fire season, which typically intensifies in September and October. The state has already had 6,754 known fires this year, compared with 4,007 at the same time last year, Newsom said at his briefing.
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Still, he expressed optimism that the fires and power crisis will improve. The heat wave is expected to break in coming days, and so far the blazes haven’t proved as difficult to contain as devastating ones such as the Camp Fire that killed scores of people in 2018, Newsom said.
“We’re looking forward to things cooling down on the West Coast,” he said.
— With assistance by Anthony Robledo, Chris Martin, and Lynn Doan
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