California’s 2018 is officially the worst year for wildfires in recorded state history, the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, citing the US National Interagency Coordination Center’s year-end statistical analysis. The 1.8 million acres of California land that burned last year was more than any other American state in 2018, and it far surpassed 2017's tally of 1.3 million acres in California. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McLean confirmed to the Times that the wildfires were unprecedented.
The Times wrote:
More than 100 people were killed and 17,000 homes and 700 businesses were destroyed in a state where fires are considered one of the annual seasons. Crews responded to more than 8,000 fires last year.
“It’s a surprise it’s that amount, but in a sense because of what I’ve seen over the last year, no it’s not,” McLean said. “It’s what we’ve been living through.”
... Firefighters said the most devastating blazes had the most extreme behaviour—wind-driven ember storms that created spot fires far beyond defensive lines and, in the case of the Carr fire, a “fire tornado” that ignited objects lifted into the air.
Many of the recorded deaths happened during the Camp Fire, which rampaged across Butte County and killed some 86 people, mainly as it rolled through the town of Paradise and burned most of it to the ground. The Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire, both in November, burned more than 250,000 acres alone, the Times noted.
After a seven-year drought from 2010 to 2017, much of California remains a tinderbox with estimates that there are over 147 million dead trees throughout the state. The end of the drought poses its own problems, as fast-growing grasses and other small plants can dry out and catch flame themselves, carrying blazes right to other sources of fuel. California’s rapidly growing population (which has almost doubled since the 1970s) has also brought many more communities into areas at high risk of fires.
Recent research has also indicated that the historical distinction between the December-February wet season and the fire season has largely disappeared, in part due to climate change.
Last year, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott told the AP that the state government should consider a ban on building homes in potentially fire-prone areas, saying: “Firefighters are living climate change, it’s staring them in the face everyday.” He added that officials “owe it” to residents and emergency personnel alike to make such decisions, “so that they don’t have to keep going through what we’re going through.”
California fire officials are planning a major effort to thin forests throughout the state in an effort to stave off future wildfires, but per the San Francisco Chronicle, some experts are questioning whether it will really be enough. Thinning forests reduces available fuel but can also dry out the forest floor or promote growth of less fire-resistant plants, the paper wrote. Denser forests may burn longer, but they may also burn less intensely.
University of California, Santa Barbara UC Cooperative Extension wildfire researcher Max Moritiz told the Chronicle, “It’s not fair to say that fuel treatments won’t do any good. It may provide some protection in some places. But most of us studying this agree that you can’t just do this and (expect to) make much headway.”
McLean told the paper the efforts may not stop the catastrophic scale of wildfires in recent years, but “It gives the folks in those areas time to evacuate and it also give the firefighters a chance to get in there and mitigate the fire.”
According to the LA Times, fire officials are bracing for the worst. McLean said that the recent wet winter has promoted even more growth in fuel, saying that its fire management programmes have “to continue forever. It’s an ongoing process from here on out.” [LA Times]
Featured image: Josh Edelson (AP)