SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Deadly fires in California have burned more than 4 million acres (6,250 square miles) this year – more than double the previous record for most scorched earth in a single year in the state.
California firefighters said the state hit its surprising milestone on Sunday with about two months left in fire season. The previous record was set two years ago when wildfires destroyed 1.67 million acres (2,609 square miles).
“The 4 million figure is unfathomable. It baffles your mind and takes your breath away, ”said Scott McLean, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
Cal Fire said in a statement Sunday that there have been more than 8,200 fires since the start of the year that have burned “well over 4 million acres in California”
The flames burned a larger area of Connecticut. About 17,000 firefighters are still fighting nearly two dozen major fires across the state.
Despite the tragic milestone, there were signs of optimism this weekend.
The powerful winds that were expected to drive the flames in the past few days had not materialized, and extreme fire danger warnings for hot, dry and gusty weather expired Saturday morning as a layer of fog spread. Clearer skies in some areas have allowed for large tankers. to fall retardant after being sidelined by smoking conditions several days earlier.
“In some areas, we were able to get quite a few aircraft in. So we really beat, a couple of different areas hard with the planes,” Mclean said. “If the weather is doing what is expected, I hope we are on that glide path. But that doesn’t decrease the amount of work that still needs to be done.”
Virtually all of the damage has occurred since mid-August, when five of the six largest fires in the state’s history broke out. Lightning has caused some of the most devastating fires. The fires have incinerated hundreds of homes and killed 31 people, but most of them are burning on largely uninhabited land.
Many of the most destructive wildfires have broken out in Northern California, where hills and mountains dotted with many dead trees have provided plenty of fuel for fires that ignite amid the high temperatures and strong winds that fuel the flames. Thick, gray smoke from the flames has contaminated the air in many hilltop communities and major cities across San Francisco Bay and beyond.
Numerous studies have linked the largest fires in America to climate change due to the burning of coal, oil and gas. Scientists say climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.
Fire officials said the glass fire burning in the wine country over the past week was their top priority.
Three fires, driven by strong winds and high temperatures, merged into one tearing apart vineyards and wooded mountain areas, including part of the town of Santa Rosa. Thousands of people were under orders for evacuation, including the entire population of Calistoga, a city of 5,000.