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San Diego’s recent wildfires a harrowing harbinger of global heating – The San Diego Union-Tribune

When Rodger Mitchell’s wife started yelling something about flames rushing toward their modular home in Barrett Junction, the 80-year-old remained calm. Small brushfires are commonplace in the community east of Jamul.

However, the gravity of the situation set in when Mitchell stepped outside into whipping winds and triple-digit heat.

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“The fire was rolling, creating its own atmosphere,” he said a week later, looking over three obliterated metal storage containers on his property. “It came through that canyon, and it wasn’t waiting for nobody.”

Rodger Mitchell stands next to his new propane tank after the original was destroyed in the Border 32 fire.

Rodger Mitchell stands next to his new propane tank he recently had installed after the original was destroyed in the Border 32 fire.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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The Border 32 fire — which started Aug. 31, destroying 19 homes and critically injuring at least two people — was just one of many conflagrations across California ignited during a recent record-breaking heat wave.

Scientists warn that humanity’s ever-increasing carbon footprint is largely to blame, driving up temperatures especially in the late summer and early fall when dry conditions and high winds can turn a small spark into a deadly fire.

“The best estimate right now is that global warming has approximately doubled the annual burned area in the West,” said David Romps, professor of climate physics at UC Berkeley’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science.

“What’s terrifying to me is the trajectory we’re on,” he added. “We’re not tamping down the cause of global warming. We’re burning fossil fuels at an ever increasing rate.”

The situation has recently taken a surprising toll on emergency crews across the state. At least 14 firefighters in San Diego County, for example, have suffered heat-related illnesses over the last week and a half, including during the Border 32, Sandia, and Caesar fires.

“The high number of firefighter injuries on these incidents is not a common or typical occurrence,” said Capt. Thomas Shoots, spokesperson for Cal Fire in San Diego. “The long duration heat wave coupled with multiple fires in San Diego County added to the already challenging firefighting conditions.”

A firefighting helicopter drops water onto a brush fire that threatend homes near Barrett Lake Mobile Home Park.

A firefighting helicopter drops water onto a brush fire that threatend homes near Barrett Lake Mobile Home Park.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When firefighter Joshua Kremensky arrived at the Mitchells’ home that Wednesday afternoon it was 105 degrees. Winds reportedly blowing up to 27 mph had fanned flames through a dry creek bed filled with thick brush and cottonwood trees surrounding the structure.

“When stress is at that level, I’m not thinking too much about the heat,” said the 30-year-old. “I’m hyper-focused on the fire and the structure and the safety of the civilians. But as it starts to progress, you can really start to feel the fatigue set in. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of hydration.”

Kremensky hosed down the vegetation around the home as best he could, at one point ripping flaming brush away from a propane tank that eventually exploded with a bang, shooting a jet of flame into the air.

The fire continued to spread so quickly that many in the area were forced to shelter in place as more fire crews arrived. The Mitchells survived without injury, but up the road, others weren’t as lucky.

“We had two victims who had sustained critical burn injuries,” said Kremensky. “At this point the fire was very intense and rapidly growing.”

The people were treated and flown to UC San Diego Health’s Regional Burn Center in Hillcrest, where they remained in critical condition as of last Sunday, according to Cal Fire. Their names were not released, and it’s unknown if they survived.

Fueled by a parched landscape, extreme heat and high winds, the Border 32 fire roared to more than 4,200 acres by 10 p.m. the first night. The blaze wouldn’t get much larger before being completely extinguished five days later.

The rapid spread of such fires also highlights a growing concern across the state about how best to notify residents of life-threatening natural disasters. Many people have ditched their landlines in favor of cellphones, which can lose service if flames destroy the nearest cell tower. And such alerts often don’t reach residents before they’re in harm’s way.

Mitchell said his cellphone never received an alert about the fire, which are routinely sent out by the county Office of Emergency Services. His stepson, who lives across the road, said he received one but only after he had already evacuated.

A burned child’s bicycle at Barrett Junction stands at the burned lot where Micael Quintanilla's home was burned.

A scorched child’s bicycle at Barrett Junction stands at the lot where Micael Quintanilla’s home was burned to the ground.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The county said it sent out a wireless evacuation order around 2:40 p.m. However, by then David Quintanilla’s mother was already trapped in the area, watching her mobile home burn to the ground.

“She wasn’t able to get any belongings,” said the 46-year-old. “It was seconds, and the home was engulfed.”

The Border 32 fire was one of about half a dozen blazes that started in their community this summer, Quintanilla said. “The first couple fires, they had helicopters and firefighters on it immediately. This fire for some reason just snuck up on everybody.”

That’s probably because San Diego had enjoyed a relatively mild summer until the recent heat wave blanketed the state.

Tropical Storm Kay brought much needed precipitation to San Diego on Friday. However, any relief provided by the 1 to 4 inches of rain that fell in eastern parts of the county may be short-lived.

“The rain won’t have much of an impact on the live fuels,” said Eric Just, unit forester for Cal Fire in San Diego, who added that vegetation will likely be bone dry again in a “couple weeks.”

It’s not just that California is getting hotter under climate change but that temperatures are rising fastest in August through October when wildfire conditions are at their worst, said Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University.

“We’re getting more severe daily-scale heat events and not just in the summer months, but critically in the fall period prior to the onset of the rainy season,” he said.

Rising autumn temperatures and decreasing rainfall over the last four decades have contributed to an increase in wildfire across the state, according to a paper from Stanford and UCLA published in 2020 in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Specifically, the frequency of “extreme fire weather” has more than doubled since the early 1980s.

“California’s warming over all 12 months, but the most rapid warming is in September, followed by August and October,” said Diffenbaugh, who was a co-author on the study.

San Diego is now gearing up for its traditional fire season, when Santa Ana winds start blowing in from the east. Another extreme heat wave under those conditions could trigger a disaster on a scale the region hasn’t seen in over a decade.

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