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The California fires of 2020 are the worst ever. Yet.



Fire season in California looks different these days. Temperatures are warmer. Fires are bigger and more destructive. Air quality is the worst in decades.

In recent weeks, dozens of wildfires have been burning across the state, threatening to burn rural and suburban communities and envelop cities in a misty haze.

Although fire season is a perennial challenge in California, the scale and destruction of the fires in recent years is worse than anything many can remember.

To see if this is true, the Times analyzed decades of data monitoring the fires in California and the destruction they wreaked. The analysis found that the fires and their combined effects have intensified in recent years and there are few signs that things will improve.

Record fires occur more often. Eight of the 1

0 largest wildfires in California history have broken out in the past decade. On September 9, the massive August Complex became the largest fire in the state’s history.

Taken together, they make the 10 biggest fires of the previous decade pale.

North Complex (1920s)

264,374 acres

SCU Lightning Complex (1920s)

396,624 acres

Creek (1920s)

212,744 acres

August Complex (1920s)

788,880 acres

LNU Lightning Complex (1920s)

363,220 acres

The biggest fires, 2001-10

The biggest fires, 2011-20

North Complex (1920s)

264,374 acres

SCU lightning

Complex (1920s)

396,624 acres

Creek (1920s)

212,744 acres

August Complex (1920s)

788,880 acres

LNU Lightning

Complex (1920s)

363,220 acres

The biggest fires, 2001-10

The biggest fires, 2011-20

The biggest fires, 2001-10

The biggest fires, 2011-20

North Complex (1920s)

264,374 acres

SCU lightning

Complex (1920s)

396,624 acres

Creek (1920s)

212,744 acres

August Complex (1920s)

788,880 acres

LNU Lightning

Complex (1920s)

363,220 acres

Hundreds of fires, of various sizes, burn the state every year. The total area consumed has increased significantly over this decade. With the fire season still beginning, 2020 has already broken the all-time record with 3.2 million acres burned so far.

Total burned from 2011 to 20
10.8 million acres

2020: 3.2 million acres

Since the state’s fire season usually doesn’t peak until the fall, when Santa Ana and Diablo winds pick up, this record year could get even worse.

Fires are burning more populated areas and damage is increasing.

Californians have long built homes in fire-prone areas, but in recent years they have caused unprecedented property losses to communities. Seven of the 10 most destructive fires in the state’s history have broken out in the past five years.

The most destructive fires in California

A comparison of the total area of ​​San Francisco, Yosemite and the area burned by fires in California in recent years

LNU Lightning Complex (’20)

CZU Lightning Complex (’20)

A comparison of the total area of ​​San Francisco, Yosemite and the area burned by fires in California in recent years

Damage to home and property is scattered across the state, often isolated in rural areas. Overall, the devastation was enormous. For comparison, there are approximately 5,100 buildings in downtown Los Angeles.

Downtown L.A.

(About 5,100 buildings)

From 2001 to 2010, fires destroyed 12,428 facilities across the state. This is a building footprint of more than twice the size of the center.

2001-10: 12,428 structures

2001-10: 12,428 structures

However, these totals pale from the past decade, in which nearly 30,000 structures were destroyed. It is the equivalent of more than five Los Angeles centers.

2011-20: 29,900 structures

2011-20: 29,900 structures

Smoke from fires is contributing to the worst air quality in decades.

Large fires are releasing smoke into the air, blanketing cities in an orange haze.

It’s not just a California problem. Smoke from fires can spread across the country. On Monday, the plumes of smoke reached the Atlantic Ocean.

When smoke from fires settles near the ground, it spreads harmful microscopic particles. These invisible granules, when inhaled, can enter the bloodstream and cause inflammation affecting many parts of the body.

Since 2015, scientists have reported “very unhealthy” levels of these particles in the Napa Valley area 15 times, a reading not recorded in the previous five years.

Daily microscopic readings of particulate matter from 2010 to 2015

Average across Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Mendocino and Lake counties

In Los Angeles, the 4th of July fireworks bring some of the worst air pollution of the year. During the 2018 camp fire, the Napa Valley area experienced 10 days of equally high levels of particulate matter in the air.

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2015-20

“Very unhealthy” particulate levels during Campfire November 2018

“Very unhealthy” particulate levels during Camp Fire November 2018

Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist at the Missoula City Health Department, discussed options for mitigating the impact of bad air: “Smoke will continue to occur. We need to plan and build to [it]Coefield recommends improved internal filtration and makes access to that filtration more equitable.

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Increased heat and drought are likely to make matters worse.

The average temperature in the state has slowly but steadily increased over the past century. Summers in California are getting warmer. On September 6, Los Angeles County recorded its highest temperature ever when Woodland Hills hit 121 degrees.

Average Summer Temperature in California (June-August)

The average temperature in California has risen four degrees since 1990.

The hot summer months dry out the vegetation. Combined with lower precipitation levels, large swaths of California are ready for wildfires after years of drought. The largest fires are currently burning in areas that are experiencing moderate or severe drought.

US Drought Monitoring (September 8)

A map of California drought zones

The effect of this climate change is a longer fire season with more favorable conditions for fire.

“There are more opportunities for an ignition that is about to face a bad day,” said Brandon Collins, a scientist at the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at Berkeley Forests. He cites the Creek fire in Fresno County, which started on September 4 and fueled mainly by dead trees ravaged by drought and bark beetles.

What will it take to slow down the spread

Firefighting costs are constantly increasing. In 2018, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $ 2.6 billion to suppress fires.

US Forest Service Annual Killing Costs

Fire suppression costs soared in 2018.

These costs could rise this year as concerns over the spread of the coronavirus prompted agencies to adopt a more expensive and aggressive firefighting strategy.

Forest service scientists have long argued that they spend more on fire prevention, including removing vegetation and prescribed burns, warning that an approach focused primarily on suppression will not work.

Expenditure on suppression has jumped to more than half the agency’s budget, up from 15% a few years earlier.

“We have to keep borrowing from forest management funds,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a message to Congress in 2017. “We end up having to hoard all the money for fire prevention, because we have fear that we will need it to actually fight the fires. “

Without more investment in prevention and systematic change to combat the effects of climate change, experts say California almost certainly has more seasons of record fires in store.

“We are not doomed to endure this,” Collins said of Berkeley Forests. “But it’s not something we can change in a year.”


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