In California, More Acres Have Burned in the 2020 Fire Season Than in All of 2019

Over 500,000 acres have burned in California, sparked by dry lightning storms and an extreme heat wave

A view of the site of the Hennessey Fire
In Vacaville, California, the Hennessey Fire ignited on Tuesday afternoon and "nearly doubled in size in a matter of minutes," according to Getty. Photo by Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Wildfires in California have burned over 500,000 acres so far this year. The largest cluster of fires, the SCU Lightning Complex, has burned over 229,000 acres and was ten percent contained by Friday morning, according to Cal Fire. The next-largest group of fires, the LNU Lightning Complex, has burned over 219,000 acres and destroyed almost 500 buildings, the New York Times reports.

The largest fires are located around the Bay Area, but blazes are scattered around California. The fires were sparked by the over 20,000 lightning strikes that hit the state in the last several days, combined with a record-breaking heatwave, reports the Washington Post. One of the hardest-hit cities, Vacaville, is located between Sacramento and San Francisco and is home to about 100,000 people. Five deaths have been linked to the fires, per the Times, and dozens of fire fighters have been injured, the Mercury News reports.

“We are experiencing fires, the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” Governor Gavin Newsom said during a press conference on Wednesday, Julia Wick reports for the Los Angeles Times. “This fire season has been very active and, not surprisingly, that activity has taken shape in a number of counties up and down the state.”

In 2019, California wildfires burned about 270,000 acres, which was the smallest total acreage affected by wildfires since 2011, reports the Los Angeles Times. By contrast, 2018 was California’s most destructive wildfire season to date. That year, about 7,500 fires burned over 1,670,000 acres of land. The year 2018 saw the state’s largest complex fire in history.

This year, California’s firefighting efforts face additional challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic. Evacuees must weigh the risks of virus transmission when they arrive at evacuation centers.

The centers try to screen for Covid-19 symptoms when allowing people in, but it’s “a little bit tricky,” Solano County Health Officer Bela Matyas tells Peter Arcuni at KQED. “A person shows up at an evacuation site coughing and short of breath, who's just come from an evacuated zone within the fire. How do you know that it's the smoke that did that as opposed to COVID?"

Additionally, the state usually relies on prison labor to staff firefighting crews, Yessenia Funes reports for Gizmodo. Only those who are incarcerated for low-level offenses are eligible for the conservation camp program. This year, California expedited the release of non-violent offenders to de-densify prison populations because prisons are at the center of many Covid-19 clusters in the United States.

“We are funded to hire 192 CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] crews,” Christine McMorrow, resource management communications officer at Cal Fire, wrote in an email to Gizmodo. “However, due to early release programs, there are not as many available and willing inmates to staff the maximum number we are funded to hire.”

McMarrow tells NPR’s Vanessa Romo that only 113 of the possible crews are staffed and 102 are deployed, totaling “1,306 incarcerated firefighters deployed to 19 fires.”

By Wednesday, over 360 fires had broken out in California. Many were small and manageable, but by the end of the day the state was still battling 92 ongoing blazes. This led California to request 375 fire engines and more than 1,000 accompanying personnel from nearby states to help fight the fires, per the Mercury News.

“My recommendation is that all the citizens in California be ready to go if there is a wildfire,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynnette Round said Wednesday, Mercury News reports. “Residents have to have their bags packed up with your nose facing out your driveway so you can leave quickly. Everybody should be ready to go, especially if you’re in a wildfire area.”

As residents have seen, wildfires can spread very quickly. Christa Petrillo Haefner, who lives 15 miles north of Vacaville, recounts how the fire killed dozens of animals that she kept on her parents’ property. The family evacuated safely, but when her husband was creating a fire break, the wind shifted suddenly and “the fire went literally up and over him,” she tells CNN’s Faith Karimi and Steve Almasy.

“This fire is going crazy. It’s not one of these situations from the past where people say, ‘Oh, I’ll stay here with a hose and protect my property’,” said Kate Garrison, 41, whose home burned down Wednesday, tells Julia Sulek at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “This is like a firestorm.”

This is only the beginning of California’s wildfire season, and new research shows that current conditions have increased the chances of extreme wildfire conditions in Autumn, the Mercury News’ John Woolfolk reports.

“Global warming is making extreme heat waves more intense and likely, and climate change is making California fire risk worse,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel L. Swain tells the Mercury News. “And these trends are very likely to continue and intensify as global warming increases.”

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