Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Dramatic fire season, but certainly not the nation’s biggest in a decade

About a month ago, misguided headlines announced 2013 as a sensationally big fire season nationally — some called it the worst season in a decade. As the Rim fire burns in California, I’ve heard the statement made on television.

The Rim fire on a media stage in California

The season has been filled with drama, but it’s not the biggest in a decade nationally. Check it on the National Interagency Fire Center web site.

Total fires  and acres burned are both well below the 10-year average. At this rate, the season won’t even match last year.

National Public Radio got it right on Aug. 15 with a story titled: 2013 wildfire season proving to be more mild than wild.

That was two days before the Rim fire started. The Rim is an expensive, sprawling blaze. California, indeed, is having bad fire year, according to Cal Fire. But California hasn’t change the national numbers in a big way.

At the same time, it is still a truly dramatic wildfire year.

The Rim fire in Stanislaus National Forest is one of California’s biggest wildfires on record. It is burning around and in Yosemite National Park.  In Arizona, 19 firefighters tragically died in a fierce wildfire. Many homeowners have been in harm’s way as fires have burned this year.

But, unless there’s a lot more burning in the next several weeks, 2013 will not go down nationally as the most extensive wildfire season in a decade — or even the last few years.

Fire season starts early, air-quality warnings will follow

There already have been brush fires around O’Neals, Millerton Lake, Porterville and Fresno. Residents are fleeing flames in Southern California. With dry grasslands and forests after another subpar wet season, this could be a very ugly fire season.

The immediate concern is danger to residents, firefighters and homes. Air quality is a secondary concern, but it’s worth noting because it can become a wider public health concern. Pay attention to the warnings from air authorities.

Remember June 2008? There were thousands of fires sparked by lightning. Columns of smoke drifted into the San Joaquin Valley from many directions.

For about a week, dirty air simultaneously breached both the ozone and particle pollution standards. The double whammy happened again in July 2008, though it wasn’t as bad as that June episode.

Fires are known for soot or particle pollution, which can make the air hazardous to breathe. Ozone-creating gases also come from fires. It’s no coincidence that 2008 was the last time the Valley had more than 125 breaches of the ozone standard.

Ozone is a corrosive gas that damages the lungs. Over time, it can create a kind of scarring in lung tissue, health researchers say.

Soot is considered to be PM-2.5, microscopic pollution that evades the body’s defenses and sometimes passes from the lungs into the blood stream.

Older people, small children and folks with lung or heart problems should stay indoors when they hear the warnings from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.