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Southern California is (still) on fire. Now it has the largest blaze in state history.

The Thomas Fire has burned 282,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

A man watches the Thomas Fire in the hills above Carpinteria, California.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

California firefighters started the year still fighting blazes from 2017, including the Thomas Fire, the single largest wildfire in California history.

Even as the Eastern United States braces for a massive winter storm, fire conditions still linger in Southern California, and only a light drizzle is in sight this week to quench dry brush in one of the driest seasons on record for the region.

Officials report that the Thomas Fire burned nearly 282,000 acres across Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, about 1.6 times the size of New York City, but is 92 percent contained as of Wednesday.

It’s been a massive endeavor, drawing at its peak almost 900 firefighters into the battle and bringing 116 fire engines, 26 helicopters, and 19 bulldozers to bear against a blaze that has been burning since December 4.

The fire destroyed more than 1,000 structures; it also claimed the life of a firefighter on December 14 and is blamed for two other deaths. Soot and ash from the flames led to record-high air pollution in the region, making it too dangerous to even be outside.

It’s a tragic finale to what has already been California’s worst fire season, as several huge, deadly infernos burned uncontrolled for days across the state.

The Tubbs Fire, which ignited in October in Sonoma County, torched 5,643 structures, making it the most destructive wildfire on record in California, and killed 22 people. Across the state, fires killed more than 40 people and scorched more than 1.2 million acres, towering over the five-year average of 202,751 acres.

What caused California’s “perfect firestorm”

Several natural and human-caused factors have converged this year to add to the devastation. Following years of drought, the wettest winter on record drenched the state, feeding a bumper crop of trees, grasses, and shrubs throughout California. Then heat waves baked much of the state, drying out the vegetation, followed by unusually stiff seasonal winds.

At the same time, populations are growing throughout California, especially close to fire-prone areas. Human activities ignite the vast majority of wildfires, and climate change is worsening forest fires throughout the United States, though researchers don’t see a connection between climate change and the current brush fires around Los Angeles.

As a result, fires have become more dangerous, and more destructive blazes are in store for the Golden State. As you can see in this chart, 14 of the top 20 largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

University of California Los Angeles environmental scientist Glen MacDonald called it a “perfect firestorm.” He added: “It really shows you our relative power to nature. We sometimes overestimate how much we can handle.”

For now, fire officials are optimistic that the devastating fire season is finally coming to a close.

Scott McLean, deputy chief at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), said it will likely still be a few weeks before the Thomas Fire is fully contained since parts of the fire are in remote and inaccessible areas.

But the swift Santa Ana winds are dying down and humidity is rising in the region, reducing the risk of a new inferno. The dry start to the year may also mean there will be less vegetation to burn in this year’s fire season.

However, it’s still too early to tell what 2018 holds, and officials warn that the lingering effects of the current fires are creating new risks. The denuded land in the wake of the flames could now face mudslides as the rainy season picks up, for example.

“We can’t be complacent,” McLean said. “We’re in California.”

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