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California: a victim of climate and its own success

by Staff Writers
Los Angeles (AFP) Oct 23, 2007
Wildfires ravaging California are the result of the region's unique climate and geography combining with a burgeoning population that is increasingly encroaching on rural areas, experts say.

As thousands of firefighters battled multiple fires that have forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, experts said the crisis could be blamed on months of dry weather, high temperatures and urban growth.

Travis Longcore, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Southern California, said the region's rugged terrain, low humidity and rainfall were a perfect breeding ground for wildfire.

"We have the Mediterranean climate, we have this hot dry climate in summer, we have the lowest rain levels on record in Los Angeles," Longcore said.

"Combine with that features that are unique -- the huge mountain ranges, the high pressures that build over the western United States at this time of the year, pushing the air through the mountain passes.

"This incredible dryness, humidity in the low 10s, forms a natural system that has naturally burned on a periodic basis."

US Forest Service spokeswoman Robin Prince highlighted the problems of trying to tackle a fire in California's arid, wind-blown climate.

"The problem with this one has been the winds," Prince said. "It's just moved the fire so rapidly that the fire crews can't keep up with it."

Meanwhile, Longcore, who is also the director of urban ecological research at the Center for Sustainable Cities, said California's relentless growth played a part in creating the conditions for wildfires.

California's population rose from 33.8 to 37.7 million between 2000 and 2007, with people flocking to the economic powerhouse, lured by a strong economy and a climate that boasts 300 days of sunshine a year.

"California is a great place to live in, until you get hit with something like this," Longcore said.

He added that urban areas once confined to the immediate areas surrounding major cities in California and coastal regions had spread exponentially since the 1960s. "It's a growth issue overall," Longcore said.

"Some people move from the city center because they can afford to, like in San Diego, where the suburbs are quite wealthy, and some people go out in the outskirts because they are cheaper."

State planners needed to firmer when it comes to allowing development near rural areas, Longcore added.

"There are other cultures that have more strongly developed state planners that aren't going to allow development in places because they're agricultural, because they're wild or because they're dangerous.

"We have a very hard time in this country when it deals with saying no."

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More than 500,000 flee as California fires rage for third day
Los Angeles (AFP) Oct 23, 2007
More than half a million people were ordered to evacuate across California on Tuesday as wildfires raged for a third day, razing over 1,000 homes and threatening to overwhelm weary firefighters.

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