Thursday, October 08, 2020

California's first million-acre fire got so big partly because of climate change, partly because rural fires weren't a priority

The August Complex fire perimeter Monday
(L.A. Times map by Swetha Kannan)
Dozens of smaller fires in northern California have merged in recent weeks to form the August Complex, the largest wildfire the state has ever seen. On Monday it became the first in state history to achieve 'gigafire' status, meaning it covers at least 1 million acres. Experts say the fire shows how climate change and factors such as mismanaged forests are worsening the state's fire danger, Hayley Smith and Rong-Gong Lin II report for the Los Angeles Times.

The fire, which covers a large portion of the Mendocino National Forest, is about the size of the developed part of the Bay Area. "The August Complex has contributed to the worst fire season California has ever recorded: 4 million acres in California have burned to date — far exceeding the previous record of more than 1.8 million set in 2018," Smith and Lin report. "One firefighter, Diane Jones, 63, lost her life trying to battle the blaze." Communities have been evacuated as firefighters try to control the fire. 

A record-dry February primed the land for a conflagration. "Increased global temperatures driven by carbon emissions also contributed to 2020’s extreme fire conditions," Smith and Lin report. "California saw its hottest August on record, only to break at least six more temperature records in September. Fourteen of the last 21 years have also seen below-average rainfall in the state."

The complex "makes up more than all of the fires that occurred between 1932 and 1999," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. "If that’s not proof-point testament to climate change, I don’t know what is."

Another reason the fire got so big? The state prioritized fighting fires in the Bay Area over rural areas because the pandemic left the state with fewer firefighters, says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. "It was just an overwhelming number of fires early. And then resources that were then stretched thin,” Stephens told the Times. "And this one, just based on a prioritization, was given a lower priority, and it continued to get bigger and bigger."

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