California's wildfires off to 'a daunting start,' currently outpacing historic 2020 season

LOS ANGELES – It’s only the start of California’s fire season, but the number of wildfires so far is outpacing averages and even last year's historic fire season, which scorched millions of acres and included four of the five largest fires in the state’s history

A perfect recipe for another disastrous fire season is coming together in California, experts fear. The past 12 months have been the state's driest on record, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, compounding the fire danger from the ongoing drought and soaring summer temperatures.

“We’re off to a daunting start,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Santa Barbara. "We're starting off much drier and we're seeing more fires much earlier than than usual."

With Mount Shasta in the background, a firefighter cools down hot spots on Monday, June 28, 2021, after the Lava Fire swept through the area north of Weed, Calif.

Experts worry after historic 2020 fire season 

Wildfires are an integral part of California's ecosystem, as they are across parts of the West Coast. But in recent years the blazes have grown. 

Experts point to a number of reasons. More development is occurring on lands prone to fires. And climate change is making areas hotter, increasing droughts that make “fuel,” a term fire experts use to describe easily ignitable debris. Fuel includes everything from twigs and branches to mulch and firewood stored outside a home. 

California, like many states out West, counts on the fall and winter months for its moisture. Rainfall and snow help replenish wildlife, vegetation and reservoirs. That precipitation helps keep the land from totally drying out in the summer and spring when rain and snow isn’t as common. 

But a series of dry fall and winter seasons has not only left reservoirs at historically low levels, it’s also created a perfect recipe for a uniquely disastrous fire season. 

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Between Jan. 1 and July 4, there were 4,599 fires that scorched 114.8 square miles in California. During the same timeframe last year, there were 3,847 fires that blackened 48.6 square miles.

By the end of 2020, a total of 9,917 wildfires had charred a record 6,653 square miles or more than 4.2 million acres, more than 4% of the state's roughly 100 million acres of land. 

A series of blazes ignited by lightning strikes, and fueled by dry conditions, made 2020 the largest wildfire season recorded in modern California history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire). One blaze in August burned more than 1 million acres and was described as being larger than the state of Rhode Island, the agency said. 

Fire conditions ‘ripe’ for disaster this year

The increased number of fires isn’t typical. The blazes so far this year, which have damaged or destroyed 91 buildings, are well above the five-year average of 2,630 fires. 

“The conditions are certainly ripe for another big fire season,” said Stephen Pyne, who has authored more than 30 books, most about the history and management of fire, and works as an emeritus professor at Arizona State University. “But it’s hard to know exactly what’s going to happen.”

Pyne noted that while the dry conditions are dangerous, there are two big ingredients that are crucial to historically large blazes and are incredibly hard to predict: an ignition and wind. 

Photos:Wildfires sweep across northern California as record temperatures, drought continue

Experts noted there's been an increase in ignitions by people or man-made devices, such as electrical lines that started the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed much of the town of Paradise, left 85 dead and destroyed about 19,000 buildings. Nature can also play a role in igniting a blaze. A bizarre lightning storm last year ignited a series of fires in California in August that grew out of control. State officials at the time estimated 12,000 lightning strikes over a 72-hour period ignited more than 560 new wildfires.

“You also need wind,” Pyne said. “That is the major catalyst in a fire going from manageable to out of control.” 

How to prepare for wildfires

Fires are hard to predict and while the dry conditions and wind that act as fuel for blazes are largely out of the control of West Coast residents, experts say home and building owners can do a few things to help stop fires from becoming catastrophic to communities. 

The landscaping used outside your home or business, the materials used for siding or the roof and even the things placed outside a home or business could mean the difference between it igniting or not. 

“The fire outlook is definitely above normal so everyone just needs to be really careful and now is a really great time for people to do some of those things to their homes,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension. “This is the time to do it. Don't do it in August when there's a fire two miles away. Now is the time to get out ahead of it.” 

Fire-proofing a home can be an expensive endeavor if it includes a new roof or siding, but there are inexpensive measures as well, such as clearing out your gutters or cleaning off your roof, removing any firewood from outside your home, removing wicker furniture from outside or replacing mulch or scrubs from the area directly surrounding a building. 

But experts note these measures help but won’t completely prevent a home or business from going up in flames if only a few residents take these measures while the rest of a community does not. Many stress the need for better land and development planning. 

“Fires have been here longer than we have,” Quinn-Davidson said. “We're not going to get rid of fire, so we need to figure out ways to live with it, like we do with hurricanes and earthquakes and floods.”

Contributing: Associated Press