A historic and horrifying wildfire season has left Californians and the rest of the world asking why. This year’s wildfires set new devastating records for a shellshocked and weary Golden State.
This year has been the worst recorded wildfire season in state history so far. For instance, blazes have killed 31 people and destroyed or damaged more than 10,000 structures. Additionally, fires have burned at least 4.1 million acres of land. Across the book, there has been devastation on a scale unheard of. Since January, there have been around 10,000 related incidents.
But there’s also been record-breaking blazes. The California Fire Department even had to create a new classification called the gigafire for the August Complex fire. Five of the six largest fires in the state’s history happened this year.
“There’s almost no statistic or dimension of this fire season 2020 in California that wasn’t astonishing or horrifying,” Daniel Swain told The Guardian. Swain is a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Everything about this year has been kind of unusual or extraordinary.”
Multiple Reasons for Wildfires
But what can California learn from 2020 to have a less destructive 2021? Scientists and researchers believe there are two main causes of such a devastating year. The first is the lack of forest maintenance in the state. For centuries, Native Americans and indigenous tribes intentionally set fires to burn away excess and dry brush.
But fire suppression laws in the state have caused forests to grow denser over the decades. This has led to more severe wildfire seasons.
“We know that California has been running this massive fire deficit and when the bill comes due you pay it,” said Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at UC Merced.
Additionally, scientists believe that global warming and hotter temperatures have increased dry timber and conditions. In August, an unusual lightning storm caused wildfires to crop up earlier than they usually do.
“As shocking as it is even to me personally, it’s not scientifically surprising because we know what happens when the climate warms and the landscape aridifies … it’s unfortunately simple … vegetation burns hotter and more readily,” Swain said.
Scientists and researchers hope lessons learned from the year will be beneficial when discussing fire regulation and forest management in the present and future.