California’s 2018 is officially recognized as the worst year in the history of the state in terms of wildfires, the Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday, March 9, citing the National Interagency Coordination Center’s statistical analysis.
730,000 hectares of land burned in California in 2018 and 530,000 hectares in 2017. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McLean confirmed that the fires were unprecedented. More than 100 people were killed, 17,000 homes and 700 businesses were destroyed.
According to firefighters, the most devastating fires were characterized by the extremes — ember carried by winds created spot fires beyond the fire area, and in case of the Carr Fire, a ‘fire tornado’ ignited objects lifted into the air.
Many of the reported deaths occurred during the Camp Fire that raged in Butte County and killed 86 people, mainly when it reached the town of Paradise and destroyed most of it. The Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire burned more than 250,000 acres of land in November.
After a seven-year drought from 2010 to 2017, much of California remains a tinderbox. It is estimated that there are more than 147 million dead trees in the state. The end of the drought only adds to the problem, as fast-growing grasses and other small plants can dry out and catch fire, spreading flames to shrubs and trees.
Due to California’s rapidly growing population, which has almost doubled since the 1970s, fire-prone areas are densely populated. Recent studies have also shown that the historical distinction between the December-February wet season and the fire season has largely disappeared, partly due to climate change.
Last year, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said that the state government should consider banning the construction of homes in potentially fire-prone areas. Officials plan to thin forests throughout the state to prevent future fires, but some experts are wondering if it will really be enough. Thinning forests reduces available fuel but can also dry out the forest floor or promote growth of less fire-resistant plants. Denser forests may burn longer, but less intensely, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Max Moritiz, a wildfire expert from the University of California, said that such measures should be applied locally, so that people have time to evacuate and firefighters can quickly get to hard-to-reach areas, but the efforts will not stop the catastrophic scale of wildfires.