“We don’t even call it a season anymore. There’s no such thing as a fire season,” Scott McLean, Cal Fire's Deputy Chief of Communications, said in an interview with Yahoo News. “Right now, we’re looking at a fire year. We’re having fires every month of the year.”
Why there’s no wildfire season anymore
California’s wildfire season typically peaks from May to October, but with every passing year, this timeframe becomes more and more obsolete. Many experts argue there is no longer a single season for wildfires; the risk is year-round in the dry, open spaces of the West. The Camp Fire, for example, started on November 8, 2018. It took 17 days to contain.
While the winter months bring some moisture and make fires less likely and more manageable, it doesn’t stop them from igniting completely. Let’s take a look at why wildfire season is now year-round.
1. Climate change is causing more droughts
Many parts of the Earth have new normal temperatures of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than pre-industrial levels. That might not seem like much, but that amount of warming creates a lot of change: heat waves, droughts, water shortages, extreme precipitation, rising sea levels, and fires, to name a few.
These rising temperatures are the reason California has seen record-high temperatures and is still experiencing moderate to extreme droughts in 68 percent of the state. Lack of moisture increases fuel flammability and availability, making a clear link between increased drought and increased fire risk. Drier conditions also increase forest pests, such as the mountain pine beetle, that can weaken or kill trees. Dead trees become ready-to-burn fuel.
To make matters worse for Californians, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions notes a 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (or 1 degree Celsius) increase could increase the median forest area burned per year by 600 percent.
2. There’s a lot of fuel for massive fires
Tree mortality in California is at an all-time high thanks to climate change, unprecedented drought, high tree densities, and a bark beetle infestation. Since 2010, California’s national forests have an estimated 129 million dead trees, many near communities, campgrounds, trails, and power lines.
That’s ready-made fuel that even the tiniest spark can ignite. Wildfire behavior depends on fuel, weather, and topography. The extreme heat this summer caused more thunderstorms and lightning strikes, offering the initial spark for many fires.
3. Wildfires are spreading faster
Not only is it easier for wildfires to start in dry conditions, but they spread faster, too. For proof, look at the CZU Lightning Complex fire in California that began in August 2020. It quadrupled in size in just one day. The SCU and LNU Lightning Complex fires are the second and third-largest blazes ever recorded in California.
In September 2020, fire officials in California’s Sierra National Forest dealt with the Labor Day weekend fires that spread through 15 miles of forestland in one day.
In the same week, the North Complex fire in Plumas National Forest spread 25 miles in one day, consuming 394 square miles of forest lands. Again, hotter temperatures and millions of dead trees helped fuel the blaze.
And it’s not only acreage that’s in jeopardy – many homes and communities are nestled near the forest and may not have much notice when they need to evacuate.
4. Wildfires are getting harder to contain
Wildfires are getting more difficult to put out in part because of the abundance of ladder fuels in overgrown forests. These are low-lying tree branches, shrubs, and small and medium trees under the canopy of larger trees. Once a slow-burning surface fire on the ground reaches these ladder fuels, fires can spread rapidly to the entire top canopy. When those big trees are burning, embers blown by the wind can ignite neighboring trees and can be spread further downwind.
Ladder fuels played a key role in the 2018 Camp fire, which blazed through the entire town of Paradise.
Parts of Northern California also witnessed fire tornadoes this summer. These vortices of flame are formed through extreme heat, uneven terrain, and turbulent winds. Because they create their own weather system, fire tornadoes can be incredibly hard to combat.
5. Current fire control policy isn’t helping – and humans aren’t, either
Fire suppression (putting out fires as soon as they start) is the go-to strategy for land managers, but it interrupts the natural burning cycle. Research shows that 20% of California would benefit from fuel treatments: logging or clearing brush, prescribed burns, and letting wildfires in uninhabited areas run their course under supervision.
Plus, more people are living in communities against landscapes that have a lot of wildfire activity. Fires are incredibly hard to contain in this region. New housing construction in fire-prone areas means more people will be at risk when fires begin.
Humans aren’t doing their part to stave off fires, either. Many fires were started by human negligence, like pyrotechnics used in a gender reveal announcement, which started the September 7, 2020, El Dorado Fire that burned more than 14,000 acres.
Building fire resilience
To protect yourself and your home from wildfires, wildfire insurance is a must. You can also do your part in your community to reduce the likelihood and impact of wildfires by:
- Voting against residential development near fire-prone forests.
- Clearing brush and trees near your home.
- Remodeling with fire-resistant design features and materials.
- Make a fire safety plan for your family.