By Haeyoun Park, Damien Cave and Wilson Andrews July 15, 2015
Photographs by Zackary Canepari for The New York Times
The hotshot crew from Big Bear, Calif., pushed along the steep, smoky ridge after a long night battling a blaze that spread fast, burned hot and just would not die.
Their beards dripped with sweat and ash. They lumbered ahead with fatigue and concern: The fire was just a few miles from their hometown.
“This area’s burned a lot more than we thought it would for this time of year,” said Ryan Doyle, 38, one of the firefighters hiking along a canyon of smoke and flame.
“For the last couple of years, they’ve been saying it’s really bad, but this is the year I think we might really see it.”
The Lake Fire started just before 4 p.m. on June 17. If rain and snow had arrived as scheduled in the winter, it might have been done in a day, at a cost of just a few acres. But with the drought turning soil to dust and trees to tinder, the fire, still smoking, has consumed a swath of national forest roughly the size of San Francisco.
It has become the first big wildfire of a California season that threatens to become a terror. Between Jan. 1 and July 11, California fire officials have responded to more than 3,381 wildfires, 1,000 more than the average over the previous five years.
The map below shows this year’s fires, as detected by satellite. There are blazes big and small all across the West, but wildfires have been especially concentrated along the mountain ranges of central California.
In the forests outside San Bernardino, the drought’s impact was hard to miss. Stomping down the dirt trails leading into the Lake Fire meant breathing in a fine dust, as dry as that of an Iraqi desert. The leaves of otherwise moist vegetation like Manzanita, an evergreen shrub, crunched rather than bent, and much of the wood on the ground was dry and light, some as airy as Styrofoam.
It was all the product of rain – or rather, the lack of it. Rain, once plentiful, has maintained its absence, falling so rarely that huge sections of Big Bear Lake where fish used to dart and birds once nested are now wide-open, empty meadows.
He pointed to the light gray puffs, identifying the source as burning underbrush. Then he turned his attention to the darker clouds rising in narrow plumes. “That’s a good clump of trees right there,” he said. He explained how the color of the smoke corresponds to the density of the fuel.
He described how fire – in such arid conditions – climbed quickly up mountain ridges and spread vertically, going from the grasses at ground level to smaller branches that act as ladders to the bodies of dry trees.
Dead trees were, in part, what allowed the fire to keep going. And they can be found all over California.
The Forest Service conducted aerial surveys in April, flying over the most drought-stricken land several months earlier than normal this year, in response to reports from the field that more trees had died.
They found a sizable increase in tree deaths statewide, mostly in the Sierra Nevada.
Last summer, officials recorded 110,000 tree deaths in that area of California.
When they returned to the same area this spring, they recorded 2.3 million tree deaths. In all, they identified 12.5 million dead trees in a million acres of California land.
Not surprisingly, given the conditions, fire season in recent years has lasted longer than usual. A generation ago, firefighters could expect the season to last a couple of months. Not anymore.
A study from the University of California, Merced, has shown that fire seasons in the West, including California, are, on average, 86 days longer than they were in the 1970s.
“Southern California has a 12-month fire season now,” said Scott L. Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. “You can have a fire there at any time.”
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