Nine of the state’s ten largest wildfires since the start of modern record-keeping in 1932 have occurred within the last ten years, and the eight largest wildfires have all taken place since 2017.
The director of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Lab, Craig Clements, told The Mercury Newsthat it was because of “a combination of everything – climate change, decades of fire suppression and drought”.
“Megafires,” as some experts call them, are fires larger than 100,000 acres and used to seldom occur but now are becoming more and more of a regular event.
“I think this trend is going to continue,” Dr Clements said. “There’s a lot of area that can still burn.”
Fires now become much larger and hotter than they would in decades past because a hundred years of fire suppression has left the landscape populated with brush and dead trees, and there haven’t been regular fires to thin out some areas.
California entered a severe drought in 2020 after having gone through one from 2012 to 2016. The last two years have been the driest in Northern California since 1976-77, leaving the vegetation dried out from a lack of rain and snow.
The climate crisis is also leading to higher temperatures including at night, a time when firefighters used to try to gain an edge over large blazes.
The warmer temperatures melt snow and leading to dry conditions that extend the fire season. More people are also moving to areas where wildfires are likely, further raising the risk of igniting a fire.
A total of 12.7 million acres have burned in California since 2012 – one out of every eight acres. Over the previous decade, 6.4 million acres have burned.
Fires are now burning hotter and are more volatile, making them harder to put out.
Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park superintendent Clay Jordan said at a community briefing on Monday that “we are seeing such extreme conditions that a lot of the old tactics aren’t working as effectively”.
The second-largest fire in California history is still burning after starting on 13 July. The Dixie Fire covers more than 960,000 acres and is three times as large as Los Angeles. After destroying 1,329 structures, the fire is now 94 per cent contained.
October is considered one of the most dangerous fire months because of extremely dry vegetation and high winds.
Dr Clements told The Mercury News that he thinks the “only solution” is more prescribed burns - when controlled fires are used to reduce brush which can carry flames - during wetter months. Some 20 million acres need to be treated in the state.
California Governor Gavin Newsom’s state budget includes $1.5billion for wildfire prevention, such as forest-thinning, cutting fuel breaks, prescribed fires on lands owned by the state, and grants to landowners and local governments. Funding for more fire inspectors and further wildfire research and detection technology is also included.
The state only owns three per cent of the forests in California, while the federal government owns 57 per cent and private landowners control 40 per cent. The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that passed the Senate in August includes $8bn for wildfire risk reduction and raises for federal firefighters. Some make just $13 an hour.
“This is real,” Governor Newsom said in Sequoia National Park as he urged the federal government to take action.
“We need you to put down the swords, rhetorically and otherwise. Get the damn job done. Support the state, our nation, your national forests. Support your kids and grandkids. Protect lifestyles, memories, and places, communities.”