The number of wildfires in California has decreased over the past 25 year, but try telling that to the hundreds of firefighters on the ground attempting to put out multiple fires raging across Northern California.
Map provided by Google Maps. Approximate fire locations are provided by CAL FIRE and give general locations of the major fires burning in California.
According to statistics from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and the California State Government, there was a 10 percent decrease in the five-year average number of wildfires from 1996-2000 to 2001-2005, and nearly a 40 percent decrease from 2001-2005 to 2006-2010. There were over 7,000 fires in California in 1996, but that number dropped down to around 2,500 in 2010. It now hovers around 3,000 per year. Since the drought began in 2011, however, numbers have been rising slightly.
The average acreage of land destroyed by wildfires in California is also decreasing. While the five-year average for acres burned by fires from 1996-2000 was nearly 150,000, from 2011-2015 only 120,000 acres were burned each year.
Lynne Tolmachoff, Information Officer at Cal Fire, attributes the overall decrease in frequency of wildfires and wildfire damage to technological advancements made over the past decade.
“There have been a lot of new ideas and we continue to research viable solutions to wildfire spread,” Tolmachoff told The Daily Beast. “Currently in California we have two DC-10 VLATs [Very Large Air Tankers] which can carry and disperse 11,000 gallons of fire retardant and create a retard line over a mile long.”
The DC-10 Air Tanker has been in service for aerial firefighting since 2006. Used for wildfires in particular, the American jet air tankers can release 45,000 liters of water or fire retardant in eight seconds.
But the DC-10 is only the latest in a long line of aircraft Cal Fire uses to combat the state’s annual wildfires. They first used agricultural-spraying planes to drop water on fires in the 1950s and have continued to improve and fortify the fleet of firefighting aircraft. The organization has “the largest department owned fleet of aerial firefighting equipment in the world” with over 50 aircraft in its fleet located “strategically” across the state.
Despite improvements in technology used to fight fires and contain them, the California fires rage on, burning “aggressively towards the north” and showing no signs of stopping. The flames have already reached the communities of Lower Lake and Clearlake and locals have been evacuated. Over a thousand homes are threatened by the fire and dozens of structures have already been damaged or destroyed. The Clayton Fire alone has burned 3,000 acres so far, according to the Clayton Fire Department, and only 5 percent of the fire is contained.
Tolmachoff is the first to admit that while wildfires have been decreasing over the past two decades, recent fires have reached historic severity. She says the statewide drought, which began in 2011, is what led to the spike in the number of wildfires over the past few years.
“This year is very similar to last year in that we are having more than average wildfires,” Tolmachoff told The Daily Beast. “While the average is typically around 3,200 wildfires and 86,000 acres of damage, this year there have already been 3,800 wildfires and 113,000 acres of land scorched. This relatively steady increase over the past five years is mainly due to drought and vegetation and trees being very dry. Last year we had two of the top 10 most destructive wildfires in state history.”
The data supports this trend. While the damage in acreage is down from historical averages, since 2010, the total number of acres damaged by wildfires each year in California has been increasing.
When asked what Cal Fire attributed the dryness in vegetation to, Tolmachoff was quick to mention climate change and global warming. “There have been a lot of days over 100 degrees…and despite some rain over the past winter, even the reservoirs are rapidly draining.”
Brad Alexander, spokesperson for the California Government Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), also cites climate change as one of the biggest culprits of this recent increase. “We’re experiencing a very busy [wildfire] season with a high number of major fires, likely due to the historic drought which is in its fifth year [and] probably going into its sixth year with no end in sight,” Alexander told The Daily Beast. “We’ve had a significant stretch of very dry, hot weeks and the bark beetle infestation and high tree mortality are additional factors.”
Despite new tools to contain and fight fires, Alexander says that it is difficult to combat the inescapable forces of climate change and global warming. The “bark beetle infestation and high tree mortality” the Cal OES spokesman mentioned are directly related to global warming.
According United States Department of Agriculture, bark beetles cause high levels of tree mortality and infestations are more likely when trees are stressed “by competition for limited resources”—a condition usually instigated by inadequate precipitation. The drought stressed and killed trees, increasing the amount of “suitable host material for bark beetles and successful reproduction,” which led to even more beetles and higher levels of tree mortality.
Hundreds of firefighters have already been deployed to fight the wildfires, according to KGO-TV, but the extreme dryness, along with windy conditions over the weekend, continues to complicate efforts to quell the flames.
Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean told the Los Angeles Times that even with “airplanes dropping retardant, helicopters dropping thousands of gallons of water” and other efforts to “try to get ahead of this,” there’s still uncertainty as to when the fire will be put out.
Despite advances in large-scale fire-fighting technology and a better understanding of the underlying causes of wildfires, there is not much that can stand in the way of mass destruction caused by climate change.