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Briefing: December 2017 Southern California Wildfires

December has been a hard month for the Golden State.  A series of 16 wildfires ignited throughout Southern California during the first week of December causing panic and widespread destruction of property. The rapidly moving fires that have forced thousands of Californians to evacuate their homes have been exacerbated by unusually powerful and unending Santa Ana winds. Winds, along with powerline malfunctions has facilitated the growth of fires by igniting vast amounts of dry vegetation.

CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY

On Saturday, December 9th, Governor Jerry Brown visited the largest fire, the Thomas fire located near Ventura, to assess the situation.  Governor Brown praised the efforts of firefighters, law enforcement and conservationists as the state entered the sixth day of devastating wildfires.  The Governor proceeded to go off script when he commented that “We’re facing a new reality in the state,” Brown said. “We’re about ready to have firefighting at Christmas,” Brown said. “This is very odd and unusual, but it is the way the world is due to the carbon pollution humans are living with and generating” he said.  The California Governor then went on to renew assertions regarding the declaration of a state of emergency in Ventura, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties.  

PRESIDENT TRUMP MAKES FEDERAL ASSISTANCE AVAILABLE FOR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The wildfires and their widespread destruction did not escape the attention of U.S. President Donald Trump.  The President acted on the Governor’s assessment and officially declared a state of emergency for Southern California on December 8th.  The designation is particularly important as the total bill for the 2017 California fire season approaches $2.5B.  The White House declaration will make available federal assistance to supplement state, tribal, and local response efforts, including FEMA to coordinate all disaster relief efforts.  

Collectively across the southern portion of the state, 8,500 firefighters are deployed at the 16 fires, more than 175,000 acres had burned, 793 structures had been destroyed, and have forced over 212,000 people to evacuate their homes as of the morning of Saturday December 9th.

Here is a summary of the largest fires:

THOMAS FIRE

The Thomas Fire began Monday 12/4 and moved exceptionally fast through its origination point in the Los Padres National forest and into densely populated areas in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.   The fire, now at around 230,000 acres, grew at a rate of about 31,000 acres in about nine hours, nearly an acre per second. Authorities ordered residents in parts of Carpinteria and Montecito to leave early on Sunday as the fire edged closer to Santa Barbara, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles on the scenic central California coast.  The blaze has been named the worst of sixteen major fires in Southern California and the 10th largest in the history of California since 1932.  As of Sunday 12/10 the fire has been estimated at 15% containment, but officials warned that the blaze will continue to threaten structures in various parts of the cities of Ventura, Ojai, Santa Paula, Casitas Springs, and Carpenteria.  Further hindering the firefighting efforts were the National Weather Service predictions that forecasted winds of up to 55 miles per hour were expected on Sunday evening.

CREEK FIRE

The Creek Fire started on 12/5 at 3:44 am four miles east of Sylmar, California in the Angeles National Forest. As of December 10th, the Creek Fire had burned 15,619 acres, destroyed 123 structures, including 60 homes in the communities of Santa Clarita, Glendale, and Olive View.  The rugged and steep terrain where the fire is burning has proved to be daunting for local resources.  The terrain as well as the heavy Santa Ana winds caused the fire to grow quickly and challenge the perseverance of some firefighters who had been on shift for several days.   However, firefighters were able to edge out the blaze and on Friday December 8th, all the affected 150,000 citywide residents were notified that evacuation orders were lifted.  Sadly, a rancher, Virginia Padilla, whose family owns a ranch in Sylmar told reporters the fire killed at least 30 of the ranch’s horses.  Padilla said she and her family got out of her home just in time Tuesday morning but were not able to take their horses with them.

RYE FIRE

The Rye Fire initially broke in one of Santa Clarita’s largest industrial parks at 9:32 a.m. on Tuesday near the 25100 block of Rye Canyon Loop. The fire threatens over 5,000 structures, including Six Flags Magic Mountain, and is threatening the communities of Santa Clarita, Valencia and Castaic Junction.  During the first hours of the blaze it quickly jumped the containment lines and was propelled across the 5 freeway by gusts of Santa Ana winds that approached 60 mph.  Officials in the area scrambled to close and evacuate West Ranch High School and Rancho Pico Junior High causing gridlocked traffic as parents rushed to remove their kids from the fire’s danger.  As of December 10th, the Rye Fire was 90% contained burned 6,049 acres, destroying six buildings.  652 total personnel are still assigned to the blaze, including 55 engines and two helicopters.

 

Sources:
+ Wenner, Gretchen, and Jeremy Childs. “Gov. Jerry Brown Visits Ventura as Wildfires Burn in Southern California.” Ventura County Star, Ventura, 10 Dec. 2017, www.vcstar.com/story/news/local/communities/ventura/2017/12/09/gov-jerry-brown-visits-ventura-wildfires-burn-southern-california/936829001/.
+ Greenwood, Max. “Trump Declares Emergency in California over Wildfires.” TheHill, 8 Dec. 2017, thehill.com/homenews/administration/363946-trump-declares-emergency-in-california-over-wildfires.
+ “Thomas Fire.” InciWeb – Incident Information System, 10 Dec. 2017, inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5670/.
+ “Creek Fire.” InciWeb – Incident Information System, 10 Dec. 2017, inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5670/.
+ Service, City News. “Creek Fire Progress Continues; Containment at 95 Percent.” NBC Southern California, NBC Southern California, 10 Dec. 2017, www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Creek-Fire-Progress-Continues-Containment-Percent-463195313.html.
+ “Rye Fire” InciWeb – Incident Information System, 10 Dec. 2017, inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5670/.
Etehad, Melissa, and Laura J. Nelson. “Rye Fire Spreads to 5,000 Acres, Triggers Evacuations and Gridlock in Santa Clarita.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 5 Dec. 2017, www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-fire-santa-clarita-20171205-story.html.

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