California Fires: Why October Wildfires Are So Dangerous

California Fires: Why October Wildfires Are So Dangerous

Deadly, fast-moving wildfires in Northern California have forced thousands of people to evacuate as 1,500 homes and businesses, including some of the region’s famous wineries, were caught in their roaring path of destruction.

With at least 13 people killed and many others injured by the aggressive flames, these wildfires are poised to become some of the deadliest in California’s history.

The fast-moving nature of these fires is typical for the month of October. Though it may seem counter-intuitive because of the cooler weather, October is the most dangerous month for California wildfires as dry vegetation and seasonal winds fuel speedy flames.

“By the time you get to this season, right when you’re starting to anticipate some rain, it’s actually the most fire prone part of the year,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension.

The most destructive and largest fires in California state history have occurred in the month of October. The 1991 Oakland hills fire that destroyed 3,500 homes and killed 25 people in Alameda County near San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, is the state’s most destructive fire. And the similarly deadly October 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego county scorched 273,246 acres of land — the most of any fire in the state’s history.

With a Mediterranean climate, California has wet, cool winters and warm, dry summers. At the end of the warmer season, brush and vegetation across the state is at some of its driest levels due to the absence of rain for several months, Moritz said.

That dryness may be amplified now due to California’s six-year-long drought. Though state officials declared the drought over thanks to a damp winter last season, much of the state’s vegetation has yet to recover.

Dry vegetation easily fuels the wildfires, which are amplified in October by seasonal winds. While the dry, warm and fire-fueling Santa Ana winds occur just in Southern California around October, the northern part of the state has seen similarly fast and aggressive wind patterns, Moritz said.

With the combination of dry fuel and fast winds this late in the season, “there’s a very big chance you’re going to get big, terrible fires,” Moritz said.

These destructive and deadly fires have become the new normal in California, officials have said. Even with the end of the drought last winter, wildfire experts anticipated a similarly devastating wildfire season as in recent years. And the fires scorching Northern California in early October have been the worst this year so far.

“All you need is ignition and you have the perfect storm, really,” Moritz said.

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