A 3,500-acre fire in the juncture of the San Bernadino and San Gabriel mountain ranges of southern California leapt onto a busy freeway Friday, sending motorists scrambling from their cars, destroying multiple houses, and forcing the town of Baldy Mesa to evacuate.
The fire jumped up onto I-15 near Cajon Pass suddenly on Friday, forcing drivers on the main connector between Los Angeles and Las Vegas to abandon their vehicles and retreat up a nearby hill. After the flames had passed, they returned through a scene “like something out of The Walking Dead,” one person at the scene said. It burned hot enough to melt the sidewalls of one tractor-trailer and turn dozens of cars into burnt-out husks.
California wildfires were once a seasonal thing. But by April of this year, months before the unofficial start of wildfire season, there had already been 850 separate fires recorded in the state — a 70 percent increase above the historical average. Winter months that used to mean snow and skiing in the foothills of California’s mountain ranges have instead brought ravaging fires like the one that devoured 60 homes in the Sierra Nevadas in February.
Many scientists have attributed the jump in fires to climate change. A long drought in the Western U.S. has deprived the high desert mountains of their usual moisture. Without significant snowfall in the winter months, there is no high-elevation snowpack to melt in spring and recharge the ecosystem’s water table. Climate science predicts that all manner of extreme weather, including wildfires, will become increasingly common as carbon emissions alter the planet’s natural cycles.
The crews that fight wildfires normally fill their aerial dousing devices from high-mountain ponds, but even those ponds are dry these days. It’s been 1,200 years since California experienced a drought this severe, according to scientific measures of soil moisture. Droughts are cyclical events as well, but scientists believe that the severity of California’s current plight is driven by man-made climate change.