Daryl Osby says fire in north of state has taken resources which would usually be used to help deadly blaze in his area
As fire officials from across Ventura and Los Angeles county gathered to speak to reporters on Sunday, beyond the charred and smoldering hills where the Woolsey fire burned through the weekend, the wind was already starting to pick up.
As Los Angeles fire chief Daryl Osby took the podium, strong gusts swirled smoke, ash and dust through grey skies. Along with updates on progress in fighting the fire, he said this blaze signified a shift: fire crews are now facing the most erratic and challenging fight of their lives.
Climate change, Osby said, was undeniably a part of why the fires burning in northern and southern California were more devastating and destructive than in years past.
The death toll stood at 25: two in the LA-area fires, 23 around the destroyed town of Paradise 500 miles to the north. The total was expected to rise.
“The fact of the matter is if you look at the state of California, climate challenge is happening statewide,” Osby said, adding that “it is going to be here for the foreseeable future”.
Drought conditions have increasingly affected the state over the past decade, causing erratic fire behavior and making efforts to contain the flames much more difficult. The Woolsey fire, which was only 10% contained on Sunday, has burned more than 87,000 acres in three days. More than 177 homes have been lost and officials said that number was expected to rise rapidly.
The fire season, which started in early summer, is poised to break records for a second year in a row. In July California’s outgoing governor, Jerry Brown, referred to megafires as the “new normal”.
After the press conference, Osby told the Guardian environmental changes had expanded fire season across the state. Crucially, this has put a crunch on resources. For an immediate example, the Camp fire in the north, which devastated Paradise, has diverted resources that drier areas of southern California could once rely on for backup.
“It did have an affect on our strategy,” he said. “Typically we would rely on our partners to the north to come. But they are fighting a major fire up there.”
Southern California fire crews therefore only had capacity to focus on saving lives and structures as the fire moved and were unable to work on containing the flames for three days.
According to Cal Fire chief Scott Jalbert, there was a window on Saturday when the winds died down and firefighters were able to make some progress. But with strong winds projected through the beginning of the new week, containing the fire will be more difficult.
“They took as much advantage as they could,” he said but “with these winds, 30-40mph, it is going to cause a lot of problems”. He added that aircraft will be less affective at aiming retardant. “You can imagine dropping a cup of water into these winds. It goes all over the place.”
With help coming from Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Washington, Osby said fire crews would have the support they need to stop the flames from spreading.
“What really hampered our ability to combat this fire is we didn’t have enough resources for containment,” he said. “Normally we would do all three things simultaneously but now we have to do it in sequential order. Lives are first.”