Every year, late summer and early fall bring sweeping wildfires to the American West, and every year, the blazes seem more severe — more destructive, and more tenacious — than the last. In California, 2020’s fire season has seen temperatures spike to historic highs, with a prolonged heat wave exacerbating the statewide fires, most of which were sparked by lightning strikes last week. Since August 15, about 650 fires have burned more than 1.25 million acres, destroying 1,400 structures in their paths. “Firenados” are forming. More than 100,000 Californians have been forced to evacuate their homes after Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency last week, mobilizing the state’s National Guard. At least seven people have died, and the damage has already exceeded that of last year: In all of 2019, wildfires charred 260,000 acres total, and killed three people across the state.
As of Wednesday morning, some of the largest fires are still no more than 27 percent contained, and there are more than 14,000 firefighters — some of whom are incarcerated, and risking their lives for paltry pay — on the ground. The situation has become an “extraordinary unprecedented historic event,” as Bay Area National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Brian Garcia told CNN — and an extremely dangerous one, particularly in the midst of a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus. However, firefighters say the lower temperatures and weaker winds this week are helping them get a handle on the situation.
Here’s what to know about the fires ravaging California.
Fires are ravaging the Golden State.
As of Wednesday morning, more than two dozen fires are still burning across the state. The three largest fire complexes — a complex being, per the USDA Forest Service, “two or more individual incidents located in the same general area which are assigned to a single incident commander or unified command” — are in Northern California. Per Cal Fire, those are: The LNU Lightning Complex, encompassing at least five distinct fires that have scorched more than 356,000 acres across Napa, Sonoma, and Solano counties, and is contained 27 percent; the SCU Lightning Complex, comprising 20 fires that have burned more than 365,000 acres in Santa Clara, and is contained 20 percent; and the CZU August Lightning Complex, which includes at least five fires that have burned more than 79,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Clara, and is contained 19 percent. Firefighters have also responded to the River and Carmel fire in Monterey County, the Loyalton Fire (the site of the “firenado”), and the Butte Lightning Complex, among others.
One of the most serious situations developed last week outside Vacaville, in Solano County. Vacaville, a city of approximately 100,000 people, sits near the LNU Lightning Complex, which exploded in size between Tuesday and Wednesday night. The New York Times reports that people fled their homes in the dark, as uncontrolled fires began consuming houses and other buildings on the outskirts of town, threatening at least 25,000 structures.
The SCU Lightning Complex remains the largest fire, which exploded in size last week as strong winds crushed the odds of quick containment. The rapid spread has strained firefighters’ limited resources, forcing Cal Fire to call for 375 fire engines from other states. Last week, one firefighter died after his helicopter crashed while he was dropping water on the Hills Fire in Fresno County on Wednesday morning.
As the blazes tear through Northern California, they’re spreading smoke across the region, and the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office has warned that air quality in the area will be “very poor for the foreseeable future.”
California suffered a brutal heat wave — adding fuel to the fires.
While temperatures have recently cooled and wind has weakened, in early August, California was mired in sweltering, triple-digit temps and suffocating humidity. On August 9, Death Valley saw what may be the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth. Not only did the extreme heat prime the region for wildfires, but the high temperatures have exacerbated the blazes.
A high-pressure system (in other words, a heat dome) was stationed over California, Arizona, and Nevada, and according to the L.A. Times, it funneled scorching, dry air over California. On top of that, a thunderstorm in Mexico “sent an invisible rippling wave of uplifting pressure north through the atmosphere,” creating the “historic lightning siege” — as Jeremy Rahn, a spokesman for Cal Fire, put it — that sparked fires in Northern California.
A state of emergency has been declared.
On August 18, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered a statewide state of emergency to deploy resources to help “combat fires burning across the state which have been exacerbated by the effects of the historic West Coast heat wave and sustained high winds.” He also obtained assistance grants from FEMA to aid fire response in Napa, Nevada, and Monterey County.
Some evacuees are afraid to seek shelter due to the coronavirus.
Some of the 100,000-plus evacuees have faced a bleak scenario: They’re in need of shelter, but afraid to check into community centers out of fear of contracting the coronavirus. One woman, who has been sleeping inside her Toyota Prius since evacuating her house in Vacaville, told CNN, “Not only are we dealing with COVID, but with also the heat and now the fires.” Another evacuee told the New York Times that after entering an evacuation site, where she saw “some people coughing, their masks are hanging down,” she’d “rather sleep in my car than end up in a hospital bed.”
Wildfires — and extreme heatwaves — like these are the result of climate change.
While California’s natural landscape evolved to undergo regular burns, as Natural Geographic reports, the steadily escalating severity of fire season is attributable to climate change. At three degrees Fahrenheit, California’s warming rate over the past century is triple the global average, dramatically drying the vegetation and making it easier to ignite. Burn seasons get longer, pushing off and shortening autumn rains.
A recent study out of Stanford found that, since 1980, statewide temperatures rose about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit while precipitation fell by 30 percent, doubling the number of fall days when conditions were ripe for wildfires to ignite. “That’s a really big increase over a relatively short period of time that can be attributed directly to the changes in climate,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and one of the study’s authors, told Scientific American. And “given that the climate will continue to warm somewhat more, no matter what we do,” he added, “this risk is definitely going to get worse before it gets better.”
As New York’s David Wallace-Wells reported at the outset of California’s fire season last year, by 2050, warming could double — if not quadruple — the amount of U.S. land that burns annually. Which is to say, if the climate crisis continues unabated, extreme weather like this could become frighteningly close to the norm.
This post has been updated.