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‘Diablo Winds’ spark historic wildfires in California wine country

This post has been updated to include revised figures on the number of fires and death toll. 

It’s peak wildfire season in California, and Monday was one of the worst days in state history. More than 60 blazes are currently underway statewide.

At least a dozen wildfires sprung up Sunday night in and around Napa and Sonoma counties—also known as “wine country,” just north of San Francisco — prompting rushed evacuations of more than 20,000 people. In an attempt to speed the flow of relief and firefighting equipment and make the National Guard available, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.

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The Northern California firestorm has quickly burned nearly 100,000 acres, and is encroaching on neighborhoods in several places. At around 3 a.m. Monday, a Cal Fire official told a local television station that there was “no hope of containment right now.”

In total, the fires have killed 13 people and destroyed more than 1,500 structures as of Tuesday morning, making them some of the most destructive in state history. More than 100 people have been treated for burns and smoke inhalation at regional hospitals, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and more than 150 people are still missing. Nationwide, this year’s fire season has cost more than $2 billion, the most expensive on record.

Smoke from the fires is visible from across the Bay Area, with many residents reporting the smell of smoke and even ashes falling from the sky. The National Weather Service says that winds at higher elevations in some parts of Sonoma County exceeded hurricane force, with several areas reporting gusts greater than 50 mph.

Several of the worst wildfires in California history have sprung up during October, near the end of California’s months-long dry season. It’s this time of year when a combination of strong offshore winds and low humidity can quickly fan a seemingly innocent spark into a raging inferno.

These winds are usually formed by a strong inland high pressure center, which pushes air down mountainsides and through canyons, causing it to warm up and dry out — a perfect environment for fast-growing fires. In Northern California, they are generally called “Diablo winds,” after Mt. Diablo in the eastern Bay Area. A 2015 study said that climate change is making these wind events more frequent and more severe in California. According to the Bay Area branch of the National Weather Service, conditions will begin to improve starting on Tuesday morning.

One particularly frightening fire in Northern California, the Tubbs fire near Santa Rosa, jumped the 101 freeway, forcing a hospital to evacuate its patients. Officials report evacuation centers that have been set up have already filled to capacity. Aerial images of Santa Rosa on Monday showed widespread devastation of entire neighborhoods.

“People are running red lights, there is chaos ensuing,” Santa Rosa resident Ron Dodds told a local television station. “It’s a scary time. It looks like Armageddon.”


‘Diablo Winds’ spark historic wildfires in California wine country

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Obama doubles size of California marine sanctuary, adorable otters rejoice

Obama doubles size of California marine sanctuary, adorable otters rejoice

President Obama has proposed that more than 2,700 square miles off the coast of Northern California be added to the national marine sanctuary system, which would protect the area from oil and gas drilling permanently. It would be the biggest addition to the 40-year-old system in 20 years, doubling the total protected sanctuary area. The otters are so excited you guys.

mike baird

From the San Jose Mercury News:

“This is a matter of economic common sense. Jobs and livelihoods hang in the balance,” [said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D)]. “No one is going to vacation on the Sonoma coast if they are looking at oil derricks.”

I like her logic, even though lots of people vacation along the California coast within view of all kinds of offshore drilling equipment. (Ahem, Santa Barbara.)

In recent months, Woolsey, who is retiring from Congress on Jan. 3, urged Obama to use his executive authority to create a new national monument along the scenic Sonoma coast. Obama, however, stopped short of creating a monument, opting instead to use the NOAA administrative process, which triggers public hearings in Northern California early next year, along with detailed environmental studies. It is expected to take up to two years to finalize …

“This is one of the crowning achievements of the coastal protection movement in California,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C. “This is a permanent ban on offshore drilling, forever, at a time when Congress has not been particularly interested in conservation.”

The Sierra Club said, “President Obama gave Californians and all Americans a tremendous gift today.” But this is particularly great news for nature, which would really prefer to do whatever the hell nature wants.

While Northern California’s coastal sea otters are poised to get an expanded sanctuary, earlier this week Southern California’s otters got some good news too. The federal government is officially abandoning its effort to keep otters near a remote island — an effort that resulted in most of the otters dying — and will now let them float free. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Trying to tell a marine mammal to stay on one side of an imaginary line across the water was a dumb idea,” said Steve Shimek, executive director of the Otter Project.

Shimek said the otters’ new freedom will help restore the coastal ecosystem of Southern California (near those offshore drilling operations, natch).

From KPCC:

Otters are good for kelp forests. And kelp forests, called the “redwoods of the sea,” are home to hundreds of species valuable to a biologically diverse coastal ecosystem.

Things are looking up for this Christmas, Ma and Emmett Otter!

Susie Cagle writes and draws news for Grist. She also writes and draws tweets for



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Obama doubles size of California marine sanctuary, adorable otters rejoice

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