It would seem like California is always on fire these days. With more than 400,000 acres have been burned in Northern and Central California, with many of the fires set off by nearly 11,000 lightning strikes. High temperatures and strong winds have made the situation even worse.
Evacuation orders in Santa Cruz County covered 48,000 people, including the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and those being evacuated must weigh the risks of seeking refuge in evacuation shelters
So, what makes California’s current major wildfires so unusual?
Dry lightning, extreme heat, and Covid-19 are all shaping California’s efforts to contain the massive, deadly blazes.
Wildfires continue burning in California, with unhealthy air from smoke still cloaking some parts of the state. Combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, the fires are compounding risks that have been brewing for years.
Fire officials have grouped some of the smaller fires in an area into complexes to coordinate their response. The largest of these is the SCU Lightning Complex. It had burned more than 365,000 acres as of September 8.
To the north, the LNU Lighting Complex near Napa has burned more than 357,000 acres and destroyed or damaged 937 structures. Thousands were forced to evacuate. The fire was 33 percent contained as of September 8, and officials anticipate the flames could spread further.
At least 650 wildfires have raged across the Golden State, burning more than 1.25 million acres, since August 15, leaving at least seven people dead, according to Cal Fire.
Many of the blazes were ignited by a massive dry lightning storm last week concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We had close to 11,000 strikes in a matter of three days,” said Brice Bennett, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). “With an already-warm weather pattern and very, very dry conditions here in California, with those lightning strikes coming through, over 367 new fires were started.”
Smoke, soot, and ash from the fires also shrouded Northern California with the dirtiest air in the world at several points last week.
Wildfires are nothing new for Californians, who have grown wearily accustomed to the destruction, smoke, and evacuation of fires since the 1980s. But this summer’s blazes stand out for their scale, timing, locations, and intensity, even among recent record-breaking fire seasons. And as David Wallace-Wells writes for New York’s Intelligencer, “What is most remarkable about the fires of 2020 is that these complexes are burning without the aid of dramatic wind, which is typically, even more than the tinder of dry scrub and forest, what really fuels California fire.”
The wildfires are just one of several disasters affecting California right now. The state has been in a two-decade megadrought, and was scorched by a record-breaking heat wave in early August, with several days in a row of temperatures reaching triple digits in some places, even at night. Temperatures in Death Valley topped 130 degrees Fahrenheit. That heat led to rolling blackouts as utilities struggled to meet cooling demand.
All the while, the Covid-19 pandemic is still a threat, making the already difficult task of controlling wildfires even harder.
Here are the factors that have fueled the recent fires and are now complicating the efforts to control them.
Extreme heat, strange storms, and climate change set the stage for California’s fires.
The lightning storm around the San Francisco Bay Area that sparked many of the current California fires was a rare event. The vast majority of wildfires in California are ignited from human sources — power lines, arson, neglected campfires, and so on. But the fires wouldn’t have been so bad were it not also for the extreme heat that’s been baking the state for weeks.
As many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by people, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. Some human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, downed power lines, negligently discarded cigarettes and intentional acts of arson. The remaining 10 percent are started by lightning or lava.
According to Verisk’s 2019 Wildfire Risk Analysis 4.5 million U.S. homes were identified at high or extreme risk of wildfire, with more than 2 million in California alone.
Wildfires by year.
2020: From January 1 to September 8, 2020 there were 41,051 wildfires compared with 35,386 wildfires in the same period in 2019, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 4.7 million acres were burned in the 2020 period, compared with 4.2 million acres in 2019.
On August 17, a series of lightning strikes started hundreds of fires across Northern California, dubbed the Lightning Complex fires. As of September 8, CalFire reported that 12 wildfires were burning across California. The largest, the SCU Lightning Complex, located in five counties in northern California near San Francisco, had burned about 397,000 acres and was 94 percent contained. To date it is the second largest fire on record in the state and has destroyed 224 residential, commercial and other structures. The LNU Lightning Complex was nearly as large, burning more than 375,000 acres over four counties including Napa and Sonoma. By September 8 it was 91 percent contained. It has destroyed about 1,500 structures. In total, over 1 million acres had burned by September 8.
In early September about 40 large fires were burning in Oregon, California and Washington consuming hundreds of thousands of acres. In Oregon thousands of residents evacuated their homes to escape the flames that scorched more than 230,000 acres. In California fires are burning from the north all the way down to the Mexican border, stretching across approximately 800 miles of landscape. In Washington, more acres had been burned this year than in the past 12 fire seasons. The fires are being fueled by continuing dry conditions.
2019: In 2019 there were 50,477 wildfires compared with 58,083 wildfires in 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). About 4.7 million acres were burned in 2019 while there were 8.8 million acres burned in 2018.
The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County ignited on October 23, and burned about 78,000 acres—an area more than twice the size of the city of San Francisco. According to CalFire, 374 buildings have been destroyed, and 60 more were damaged.
The Getty fire in Los Angeles broke out on October 28, fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, with wind gusts up to 80 miles an hour and burned 745 acres.
In Ventura County, the Maria fire began on October 1 and burned 10,000 acres and destroyed four structures. The Ranch fire, ignited November 3, burned 2,500 acres.
2018: In 2018 there were 58,083 wildfires, compared with 71,499 wildfires in 2017, according to the NIFC. About 8.8 million acres were burned in 2018, compared with 10 million in 2017. The Mendocino Complex Fire broke out on July 27 in Northern California and grew to be the largest fire in state history, with 410,203 acres burned. The Carr Fire, which broke out on July 23 in Northern California, is the eighth most destructive fire in the state’s history. Eight fatalities are attributed to the fire, and 1,614 structures were destroyed. Loss estimates are not yet available from the Property Claims Services (PCS) unit of ISO. The Insurance Information Institute (I.I.) estimates that insured losses from the Carr Fire totaled between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion in dollars when it occurred.
The Camp Fire broke out in Butte County, Northern California on November 8 and became the deadliest and most destructive fire on record in the state. According to Cal Fire statistics 85 people perished. About 153,000 acres were burned and 18,800 structures were destroyed. Loss estimates are not yet available from the Property Claims Services (PCS) unit of ISO. The I.I. estimates that insured losses from the Camp Fire totaled between $3.5 billion and $5.5 billion in dollars when it occurred.
The Hill and Woolsey Fires started on November 8. The Woolsey Fire burned about 97,000 acres, according to Cal Fire. It destroyed about 1,600 structures and killed three people. Loss estimates are not yet available from the Property Claims Services (PCS) unit of ISO.