In August, a massive thunderstorm swept through northern California, and its lightning strikes ignited the region’s dry, fire-prone forests. The storm set off more than 300 individual fires, and as time went on, they fused together to form the August Complex Fire—California’s first-ever "gigafire," reports Umair Irfan for Vox.
Earlier this week, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) announced that the August Complex Fire had been upgraded from a megafire—a fire burning hundreds of thousands of acres—to a gigafire after it blazed through more than a million acres of land.
Australia’s bushfire earlier this year reached gigafire status, but California's is the first gigafire in the United States for ten years. More than 1.03 million acres of land have been engulfed in the August Complex Fire’s flames, making the fire itself larger than the state of Rhode Island, report Oliver Milman and Vivian Ho for The Guardian. According to Cal Fire’s live updates, 65 percent of the fire has been contained as of Thursday night.
California reached another devastating milestone this year: four million acres in total have been burned so far this fire season, more than doubling the state’s previous record from 2018’s Mendocini Complex Fire, reports Harmeet Kaur for CNN.
“The four million mark is unfathomable. It boggles the mind, and it takes your breath away,” Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire tells the Associated Press. “And that number will grow.”
An analysis by Climate Central suggests that the out-of-control wildfires in the western U.S. have become three times more common and the fire season lasts three months longer since the 1970s, reports Brian Kahn for Gizmodo.
Although wildfires are a natural occurrence out West, rising temperatures due to climate change have made conditions hotter and drier—two variables that fuel wildfires. Drier land makes it easier for fires to catch and spread, and hotter temperatures prolong the fire season.
“We predicted last year that we were living with the chance of such an extreme event under our current climate,” Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, writes on Twitter. “Don’t need a crystal ball.”
Californians are already feeling just how much wildfires have intensified in recent years. Of the states 20 largest wildfires in history, 17 have occurred since 2000; four of the top five occurred during this fire season alone, reports Gizmodo. So far, at least 31 people have died in California’s widespread fires, and millions more face health risks from the thick smoke and air pollution. Nearly 8,000 homes and other structures have been destroyed.
“This is an unprecedented year, and the thing is, there’s no vaccine for wildfires,” Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist, tells the Associated Press. “We’re going to have to learn to live with wildfires and the associate smoke."