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One Million Acres Burning: The Complexity of California’s August Fire

Capitol Public Radio

The monster fire began in mid-August, and now stretches from Humboldt to Colusa County.

Every day, Kale Casey gets in his truck and drives the northern perimeter of the August Complex wildfire — now the state’s largest in recorded history. After a month and a half, it now amounts to more than one million acres, and only about half of the vast forestland spreading across six counties is contained.

“All across the west this year, the goal was to keep the fires as small as possible because of COVID,” said Casey, a spokesman for the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team that's in charge of fighting the complex's northern portion. “Smoke impacts folks who are susceptible to COVID symptoms.”

The monster fire began in mid-August, when 37 different fires helped spark the fire in the coastal range that stretches from Humboldt to Colusa County. Multiple rounds of triple-digit heat, excess fuel and dry and windy weather caused several blazes to merge a few times. It’s the first California fire in recorded history to pass the 500,000 acre mark.

“As those fires grew together, two or three different times they doubled in size,” said Punky Moore, public information officer for the Mendocino National Forest.

She says the megafire could have grown even larger if it hadn’t been for a coordinated effort by emergency responders across local, state and national agencies, as well as private landholders.

“I don't think we realized right at the beginning … that we were going to end up at a million-acre milestone,” she said. “I don't think that ever went through our heads. But we could tell that there was a point where we needed more help.”

In the past month and a half, the August Complex fire has burned more than 240 structures. The blaze is still very active in Trinity County where officials have issued evacuation orders.

“[The] persistent hot and dry weather made the fires extremely resistant to containment,” Casey explained. “It's been a record-breaking year.”

Casey says the August Complex fire, and other weather this season, makes it feel that climate change is upon us. He says in almost every weather briefing this summer he heard the same routine of record high temperatures and perfect conditions for wildfires to spark.

“That language is telling you something,” he said.

UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain says the size of the fire is notable, but what’s more significant is the level of destruction that this year’s fires in California have caused.

“Thirty-one people have died this year in California,” Swain said. “That's quite a high wildfire death toll compared to almost any other year, historically, and thousands of homes have burned in California.”

In early August, Swain and his colleagues found that the number of autumn days that present ideal wildfire conditions has jumped from four to 12 since 1979.

“These extreme ... conditions are themselves directly related to these big fire events,” he said, tying the ripe fire conditions to human-induced climate changes. “We actually expect the propensity for those extreme fire weather days to further increase over the next couple of decades.”

Swain says determining what sparked a particular fire is less important than trying to remedy the conditions that cause them to become outsized.

“It's really more about the background conditions that have resulted in the climate being as warm as it is, the vegetation being as dense as it is, and the people living in as high-risk zones as they currently live in,” he said.

The August Complex wildfire could also be part of bringing California back into equilibrium to the amount of acreage that used to burn in the state, said Michael Jones, a UC system forestry advisor in Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties. Before the year 1800, some 4.5 million acres or more burned annually in California, according to a study by UC Berkeley.

“I looked at the historical burn area, and a lot of this landscape hasn't burned — or there is no record of this area burning — for a long time,” Jones said.

Because of the lack of fire and how large the August Complex fire has grown, Jones says there could be some positive ecological benefits for the region.

“Some areas are going to be hit really hard, definitely bad and will have trouble recovering,” he said. “But other areas will look phenomenal. They'll look fantastic and they'll do exactly what we want these systems to do.”

But he says the complex is an example of how fire suppression, whether historic or current, isn’t a good long-term strategy for a state that is prone to wildfire. He hopes the more than 4 million acres burned so far in the state changes how Californians think about fire.

“People are exhausted,” he explained, “they're scared and don't understand this fundamental shift and change.”

Jones says the current fire season should force people to rethink where communities should develop.

“I don't think that we can have another season like this without something fundamentally shifting,” Jones added.

Jones says smoky skies may need to become a year-long reality because of prescribed burns in cooler months and a prolonged wildfire season in warmer months. He says that is a pill Californians will have to swallow.

“This is another indication of how we need to think differently about how we approach managing fire, and how we need to become more of a fire-adapted civilization,” Jones said.

Copyright 2020, Capitol Public Radio

Ezra David Romero