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Welcome to the Age of Fire: California wildfires explained

Firefighters battle the Mosquito Fire burning in unincorporated Placer County in 2022.
Noah Berger
AP Photo
Firefighters battle the Mosquito Fire burning in unincorporated Placer County in 2022.

After two mild wildfire seasons, California is bracing for whatever 2024 brings.

Favorable weather marked 2023 and 2022, when the total acreage burned — less than 400,000 acres each year — was considerably lower than the state’s 5-year average of more than 2.3 million acres.

But 2024 has already started in a worrisome way, particularly in areas where two heavy rainy seasons fueled thick grasses and brush. The Post Fire in the Gorman area of Los Angeles County burned almost 16,000 acres in its first three days and remained active for 11 days in June. The fire raged in steep, hard-to-reach areas, and Cal Fire noted that “fire weather conditions” — gusty winds and warm temperatures — were making it even more difficult to control.

Now the Thompson Fire in Oroville is commanding attention, with mandatory evacuation orders issued to about 13,000 residents during an extreme heatwave.

As climate change warms the planet, the state’s wildfires have become so unpredictable and extreme that new words were invented: firenado, gigafire, fire siege — even fire pandemic. California now has 78 more annual “fire days” — when conditions are ripe for fires to spark — than 50 years ago. When is California’s wildfire season? It is now almost year-round.

Nothing is as it was. Where are the worst California wildfires? All over. Whatever NIMBYism that gave comfort to some Californians — never having a fire in their community before — no longer applies.

For instance, Southern California’s coastal fires typically had to be driven by desert winds. But no longer. Vegetation along the usually moist coast is so parched that it doesn’t need Santa Ana winds to fan wildfires.

The summer of 2022, while relatively mild, got off to a deadly start. The McKinney Fire killed four people, and more than 181,00 acres had been torched by the start of August. And lightning strikes touched off a complex of 12 fires in a densely forested region of Northern California.

2020 was an extreme year, the deadliest year in history. And in 2021, the state’s oldest park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, was nearly erased by a fire that destroyed roads, bridges, campsites, trails, the visitor center, restrooms and electrical and water systems.

California’s so-called ‘asbestos forests’ have lost their immunity. Massive fires tore through dense, moist rainforests where climate change chased away the region’s protective layer of fog and mist.

What causes California’s wildfires? Arson and power lines are the major triggers. A 2022 audit showed that utilities aren’t doing enough to prevent fires. But lightning-sparked fires, like the one that burned Big Basin park, are a fairly recent trend.

Unpredictable and hugely powerful lightning storms — tens of thousands of strikes in a span of days — bombard already dry and vulnerable landscapes. Scientists say to expect more lightning as the planet warms. And, aided and abetted by drought, more than 163 million trees have been killed by drought or insects.

Jaw-dropping “fire tornadoes” spin out from the intense heat thrown off by monster fires, bedeviling crews who can only flee from a 300-foot wall of flames.

The job of battling these larger, more stubborn California wildfires has become more complicated, fearsome and deadly, straining the state’s already overworked firefighters.

And much, much more costly. The Legislative Analyst’s Office provided this sobering calculation: CalFire’s total funding for fire protection, resource management and fire prevention has grown from $800 million in 2005-06 to an estimated $3.7 billion in 2021-22.

As the impacts and costs surge, homeowners are still finding that insurance companies are canceling their policies — even if they fire-harden their property.

More attention is being paid to the unhealthy smoke lingering in communities. Even California’s crops are harmed, with concerns about a smoke- tainted grape harvest and impacting the state’s $58 billion wine industry.

Scientists and fire bosses are moving away from all-out suppression of every fire to understanding that fire can be harnessed as a tool. The benefits of fire, long part of the culture of native Californians, are now part of the state’s planning.

After all, California’s landscape evolved with fire. What remains is for its inhabitants to adapt to the new reality.

And that requires yet another new term: Welcome to the “Pyrocene,” coined by fire scientist Stephen J.Pyne. The age of fire.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.