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Executive Summary for September 15th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary.

Published on Sep. 15, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Drought Kicks Fire Season Into High Gear

One person is dead and thousands have been displaced by a trio of major wildfires burning in California, all of them aggravated by the state’s severe drought.

The fatality was an elderly disabled woman in the town of Cobb who was killed when she was unable to escape the Valley Fire in Lake County. Sadly, she called officials for help evacuating her home Saturday evening, but by the time sheriff’s deputies reached her neighborhood — about 25 minutes later — they could not get to her home because the neighborhood was engulfed in flames.

Other people are reported missing, but it is unknown if they simply evacuated to someplace safe and are unable to contact friends and family.

In total, three major fires — the Valley Fire in Lake County, the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties and the Rough Fire in Fresno County — have burned more than 270,000 acres. That’s more than 10 times the size of the city of San Francisco. About 750 homes and many more outbuildings have been destroyed.

These fires exploded in size amid a heat wave last week because they were able to feed on exceptionally dry brush and trees that had been killed or withered by the drought.

The important thing to remember is that this is just the beginning. As much of the rest of America slips into fall, California is slipping into the worst of its annual fire season. Rains don’t normally begin until November. Severe heat can continue well into October. And there remains a lot of fuel ready to burn.

The Contra Costa Times reports that through Monday, 738,516 acres had burned in California in 2015, a 75 percent increase from the same date last year and a 37 percent increase compared to the five-year average.

“Until we get rain, it’s not going to get any better,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at U.C. Berkeley.

Perhaps more importantly, this drought year is going to change fire behavior for years to come.

“The stuff that’s died over the last three or four years will be fuel for wildfires for the next 50 years, even if we have epic rains this winter,” said Jim Crawford, a division chief with CalFire, the state firefighting agency.

California Drought is Worst in 500 Years

A new study described in the science journal Nature estimates that California hasn’t seen a drought this bad in 500 years.

The study, led by scientists at the University of Arizona, analyzed tree-ring measurements in California blue oak trees to assess moisture levels going back hundreds of years. It concludes that California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack this year was the lowest in 500 years. It also estimates a drought of this scale has a “return interval” about every 3,100 years — meaning a drought this bad really doesn’t happen very often.

However, climate change is expected to change that up, according to the study: “The ongoing and projected role of temperature in the amount and duration of California’s primary natural water storage system thus foreshadows major future impacts on the state’s water supplies.”

Blue oak trees were chosen for the study because “they are super-sensitive to winter precipitation,” according to a separate commentary article in Nature.

“The results were astonishing,” Valerie Trouet, an associate professor at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the study, told the Washington Post. “We knew it was an all-time low over a historical period, but to see this as a low for the last 500 years, we didn’t expect that.”

Hispanics Lag in Awareness of Water Conservation Rules

The polling firm ThinkNow Research has released the results of a new poll of 500 Californians which finds that Hispanic residents are less likely to understand the water conservation requirements imposed by the state.

While 86 percent of non-Hispanic residents had heard about the state’s mandatory water use restrictions, only 79 percent of Hispanics knew about them.

When asked if they knew they are required to cut their water use 25 percent, the gap grew wider, especially among younger Hispanics. While 24 percent of non-Hispanics in the poll knew, only 16 percent of Hispanics knew and only 10 percent of Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 34.

What is perhaps most alarming is that so few people of any racial group know about the 25 percent requirement. The poll was conducted in late August — three months after the water conservation requirement was imposed.

Top image: A firefighter stands near a wildfire in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Two of California’s fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press)

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