Few resources, old-growth forest allowed for fire’s growth

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The Bobcat Fire burns pine trees near Cedar Springs, Los Angeles, California on September 21, 2020. – The fire which erupted on September 6 in the Angeles National Forest has become one of the largest fires in Los Angeles County’s history with over 100,000 acres scorched. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — A lack of firefighting resources in the hours after it was sparked allowed a fast-moving wildfire to make an unprecedented run through Southern California mountains and eventually find fuel in old-growth trees to become one of Los Angeles County’s largest fires ever, an official said Tuesday.

The Bobcat Fire has burned for more than two weeks and was still threatening more than 1,000 homes after scorching its way through brush and timber down into the Mojave Desert. It’s one of dozens of other major blazes across the West.

“This is a stubborn fire,” Angeles National Forest spokesman Andrew Mitchell said. Only about 100 firefighters were initially dispatched on Sept. 6 when the Bobcat Fire broke out and swiftly grew to about 200 acres (81 hectares), he said.

“To put that into perspective, normally for a fire that size we’d have at least double or triple that number of firefighters,” Mitchell said. At the time, many Southern California ground crews and a fleet of retardant- and water-dropping aircraft were assigned to multiple record-breaking blazes in the northern part of the state.

By the time staffing was ramped up, flames had found their way deep into inaccessible forest. Embers floated across mountain ridges, igniting towering trees and creating an expanding wall of fire.

“A lot of that old growth hadn’t seen fire in 40 or 50 years. The fire had a lot of places to go,” Mitchell said. The blaze had more than doubled in size over the past week to 170 square miles (440.30 square kilometers).

As of Monday, the fire was still advancing at one to two miles (1.6 to 3.2 kilometers) per hour at times and threatened the desert town of Pearblossom after burning into the Antelope Valley foothill area, across the San Gabriel Mountains from Los Angeles.

The blaze has destroyed or damaged at least 29 homes and other buildings, with the toll rising to perhaps 85 when damage assessment teams can complete their work this week, authorities said.

Cheryl Poindexter lost her desert home.

“That fire came over the hill so hard and fast that I turned around and I barely got my eight dogs and my two parrots out,” Poindexter told ABC7. “You can see everything is ash.”

Firefighters also battled flareups near Mount Wilson, which overlooks greater Los Angeles and has a historic observatory founded more than a century ago and numerous broadcast antennas that serve Southern California.

The fire was pushed by erratic winds over the weekend, although they had died down by Monday and were expected to remain light through Tuesday.

Numerous studies in recent years have linked bigger U.S. wildfires to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because climate change has made California much drier. A drier California means plants are more flammable.

Near Mount Wilson, firefighters set more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) of fires designed to burn out the blaze’s fuel and act as a brake on its advance.

“We’ve got a fire here that is bigger than the city of Denver, and it did it in two weeks,” said Sky Cornell with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

About 1,100 homes and some 4,000 residents remained under evacuation orders, and the fire was only 17 percent contained, fire officials said.

Evacuation warnings — meaning residents should be prepared to flee if ordered — remained in effect for the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, home of the Rose Bowl and the annual Rose Parade, and Wrightwood, a mountain community near several San Bernardino County ski resorts.

The blaze was one of more than two dozen major wildfires burning across California, including five of the largest in state history.

More than 5,600 square miles (14,500 square kilometers) have been charred, an area larger than the state of Connecticut, and at least 23,000 people remain evacuated statewide, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Early estimates are that 6,400 buildings have been destroyed across the state, but Newsom said “by no stretch of the imagination do we think this tells the entire story.” Damage assessments are ongoing, he said.

Nearly 19,000 firefighters in California are currently battling 27 major blazes, Newsom said. At least 7,900 wildfires have erupted in the state this year, many during a mid-August barrage of dry lightning that ignited parched vegetation.

Twenty-six people have been killed. Officials were investigating the death of a firefighter at another Southern California wildfire that erupted earlier this month from a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used by a couple to reveal their baby’s gender.

Charles Morton, 39, died on Sept. 17 while battling the El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino National Forest about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.

Morton, was a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service and a squad boss with the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Crew of the San Bernardino National Forest.

“Charlie was a well-respected leader who was always there for his squad and his crew at the toughest times,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said.

“Charlie is survived by his wife and daughter, his parents, two brothers, cousins, and friends. He’s loved and will be missed. May he rest easy in heaven with his baby boy,” Morton’s family said in a statement.

In Wyoming, a wildfire that roared across a wilderness area toward cabins and a water supply reservoir for Cheyenne, the capital city, calmed down Tuesday. But predictions for more gusty winds were cause for concern. The blaze has charred over 21 square miles (55 square kilometers) of Medicine Bow National Forest. Officials were investigating signs the fire was human-caused.

In Colorado, one of the state’s largest wildfires continued to grow slowly, with firefighters benefiting as the flames spread into flatter ground Monday. The Cameron Peak Fire near Red Feather Lakes had burned 163 square miles (422 square kilometers) and was 15% contained. At higher elevations, it devoured numerous lodgepole pine trees that had been killed by a beetle infestation.

More than 9,000 firefighters were battling large wildfires across Oregon and Washington, where thousands of homes have been destroyed, the Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service said.

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