Why California Will Continue to Burn Well Beyond This Fire Season

A thunderstorm 1,100 miles south of the Bay Area in Sonoma, Mexico, was the last piece of the puzzle to create the start of California’s worst fire season. A rippling wave of uplifting pressure from the thunderstorm traveled to the North Bay to meet with a record-breaking heatwave and remnant moisture left from tropical storm Elida. The result was an unstable atmosphere creating a measured 20,203 lightning strikes in a span of 4 days, starting the second and third biggest fires in California history simultaneously. This year has already seen 3.4 million acres burned, 26 times higher than 2019, and the most in California history. With the hot and dry offshore winds that frequent the fall, we have yet to see the full potential of this year’s fire season devastation. 

Fire season in much of the West is starting earlier and ending later each year, and – whatever the political controversies – the culprit is no mystery. “Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend”, explains CalFire. “Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire.” CalFire estimates fire season has increased by 75 days along with the extent of the fires across the state. 

While it may be unlikely to see thunderstorms in California, climate change is making the unlikely more likely. According to Trump’s National Climate Assessment team, we are experiencing more frequent high temperatures, longer fire seasons, and more intense heat waves. Death Valley recorded 54 °C (130 °F), the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded on earth according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate change is also increasing the frequency of strong hurricanes, which could bring moisture to California’s atmosphere, only needing another high-pressure system to pass by during the hot summers to potentially create the next dry-lightning nightmare scenario.

While there might be many links that play a role between climate change and wildfires, the key connection between them is vegetation moisture. “As the atmosphere warms, what is known as the vapor pressure deficit increases with that warming” explains Daniel Swain, a University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist. The vapor pressure deficit is the gap between how much moisture could be in the atmosphere and how much moisture is actually in the atmosphere. “As that gap widens with global warming the extreme fire behaviors increase because of how it affects living vegetation. So the plants are responding to this increase in the atmosphere water deficit and becoming drier”.

A study published on Earth’s Future magazine found that since the early 70s, California’s wildfire has increased eighth fold and its burn area fivefold. This increase in fire risk is directly attributed to warmer temperatures, which decreases vegetation moisture, and makes fields drier and more flammable, making California more likely to burn. When combined with the Santa Ana winds in Southern California and the Diablo winds from Northern California that frequent during the fall, along with dry winters and falls that extend the fire season, more extreme fire conditions can result. These extremely quick and drastic changes to our habitat can be directly attributed to climate change, but also to some poor ecological practices over the years. 

While fires can happen naturally, the majority have been sparked by people. The Camp Fire that wiped out Paradise by killing 85 people and destroying nearly 19,000 buildings started because of years of negligent maintenance by Pacific Gas and Electric which resulted in equipment malfunction. The Ranch Fire, California’s biggest single fire by acres burned, started by a rancher who was hammering a metal stake on dry grass to find a wasp nest. And most recently, a gender-reveal party used a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device which sparked the El Dorado Fire burning over 10,000 acres so far. Carelessness and ecological malpractice from our part have played a major role in the responsibility of California fires, but an argument can be made that we were set up to fail by years of questionable environmental policies. 

Five years after the U.S. Forest Service was created in 1905, a series of fires known as the “Big Blowup” in Montana, Idaho, and Washington burned 3 million acres in two days. The devastating fire was used as the poster child by conservationists to convince the government and the public that total fire suppression was the only solution to prevent another terrible fire from occurring again. National fire policy took a turn towards total fire suppression that would come back to haunt us still to this day. 

The new policy’s goal was to prevent fires and suppress all fires as quickly as possible. This included bans on light burning, despite much opposition from ranchers, farmers, and timbermen who would use them to improve land conditions. Severe fires in the 1930s did little to question the suppression practices, instead, the Forest Service doubled-down on total fire suppression and established the infamous 10 a.m. policy, which mandated all fires to be out by 10 a.m. the following day. In 1944, the Forest Service introduced Smokey Bear to educate the public on fire prevention, an advertisement campaign that proved extremely effective and is credited for the longest-running public service announcement campaign in United States history.

The fire suppression policies would rule federal land until 1978 when the Forest Service decided to part ways with total fire suppression and allow some natural fires to burn. But 73 years of total fire suppression have left a ticking time bomb on the West. Fires on Forest Service land have increased dramatically since the 1970s with nearly 5 times more fires larger than 25,000 acres each year.

“There is a dearth of natural good fire in California forests” explains Swain. According to Swain, these fires would have come along the pre-colonial era and burn away a lot of the underbrush and smaller trees, leaving the mature trees and producing a healthier forest overall. “A healthier forest, in general, has a lower fuel load, so you do not have as much dense vegetation to burn as you do when you remove fire artificially from the landscape over the course of a century and allow those fuels to accumulate. That is part of the problem in California and throughout the West and part of the reason things have gotten to be as bad as they have”.

According to a western wildfire study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, human activity, climate change, and the ecological effects of recent high fire activity have caused a forest “fire deficit” in the western United States. Decades of total fire suppression have altered many of the national forests and resulted in the many deadly and expensive wildfires we are struggling to control today. 

Fires did not always terrorize California. Before colonization, Indigenous cultural burning used to be a common yearly practice among tribes. They would use low-grade fires to manage the landscape and encourage new plant growth for tribal use and to attract game. By the early 1900s, all cultural burning was banned throughout the sate, and bounties were set for those Natives who would oppose it. However, California is trying to bring that Indigenous knowledge back and apply it to their fire ecological practices. The Forest Service has partnered up with the Karuk and Yurok tribes in Northern California to manage land for traditional values and wildfire management. 

“We have done more [prescribed fires] in the past decades, but not nearly enough to meaningfully address the problem,” says Swain. Natives used to burn 4-5 million acres a year in California to prevent fires. To get back on track to prescribed burns and narrow the fire deficit we currently have, we would need to burn 20 million acres in a year. Whether we get there or not, is up to us. 

For Times Media Mexico
Daniel Oropeza

Daniel Oropeza is an environmental journalist who graduated from the University of California, Davis. His work focuses on climate change and human impacts across landscapes and ecosystems.