After nearly two months, the largest wildfire in the history of the US state of California has finally been put out. The Ranch Fire can now officially take its place in the record books, having burned a grand total of 459,123 acres.
The Ranch Fire was part of the Mendocino Complex, which lit up on 27 July. Paired with the River Fire, the complex became the largest fire in state history in early August. Just a week later Ranch Fire took the title of the largest single fire in California history, fanned by powerful winds over a hot, dry landscape.
The Ranch Fire continued its smouldering march through Mendocino National Forest until it was officially declared out on Wednesday. Crews are doing mop up work, helping clean up fire lines dug to contain the fire and searching for any last hot spots. While the blaze is out, the California’s state fire agency warned plumes of smoke could still rise due to the warm, dry weather. As crews continue assessing the landscape, a large closure remains in effect for the forest, including the Snowy Mountain Wilderness Area.
The Ranch Fire was one of a few notable fires in California this summer. The Carr Fire left a swath of destruction in Redding and spawned a firenado while the Ferguson Fire shut down parts of Yosemite National Park.
And we may not be done yet. Southern California’s fall fire season is just getting started. The Santa Ana winds that usher hot, dry air into the region helped fan last year’s Thomas Fire, which held California’s largest fire crown for all of eight months. The winds are calm for now, but they may not stay that way.
“So after the present reprieve, I would not be surprised to see a renewed surge in heat, wind, and fire activity before the winter rains arrive,” UCLA climate scientist and California weather watcher Daniel Swain wrote on his blog this week. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we get a break this year, though. It’s already been a rough few years as far as California wildfires go.”
All fires now occur in the context of a warming climate. This was California’s second-hottest summer on record, which no doubt helped the Ranch Fire take the title of California’s largest fire yet. Hotter conditions melt out snowpack earlier and dry out vegetation, creating a landscape more prone to explosive conflagrations. Research has shown that climate change has essentially doubled the area burned in western forests since the 1984. It’s enough to make one wonder if we should keep building in these places.