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Deadly wildfires are still threatening Northern and Southern California

The Camp Fire is now the most destructive fire in state history, and has claimed at least 29 lives.

A table and chairs outside of one of at least 20 homes destroyed by the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California.
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.

The Camp Fire burning near Chico, California, is now the most destructive (and tied for deadliest) fire in state history. And it’s just one of several major infernos that have been raging in the Golden State as late-season winds have picked up and spread walls of flames.

The Woolsey Fire in Southern California has taken lives and property too, and could still spread further. Already more than 300,000 people have been forced to evacuate statewide.

The Camp Fire has so far torched more than 113,000 acres since igniting Thursday morning. At one point, it was growing at a rate of one football field per second. The fire has killed at least 29 people and incinerated more than 6,400 structures. More than 200 people are still missing. Paradise, home to 26,000, was almost entirely laid to waste by the fire.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

“The town is devastated, everything is destroyed,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spokesperson Scott Maclean told Reuters. “There’s nothing much left standing.”

You can see the massive smoke clouds in this satellite photo (the red is infrared heat, not actual flames):

The fire is now 25 percent contained, and has forced more than 50,000 people to evacuate, some on foot. Towering plumes of smoke, soot, and ash filled the skies and spread to communities hundreds of miles away like Santa Rosa, the site of last year’s Tubbs Fire, then the most destructive blaze in state history. As of Monday morning, the blaze is 25 percent contained.

The governor's office declared a state of emergency for the region and requested federal aid.

Farther south, two other blazes ignited Thursday near Los Angeles and turned the sky orange. The Woolsey Fire has burned 91,500 acres so far with 20 percent containment. Two bodies were found in the path of that fire, though the cause of death is not yet official, the Washington Post reports. Firefighters are gaining ground against the Hill Fire, which has scorched 4,500 acres. The blaze is 80 percent contained.

Seasonal Santa Ana winds with gusts up to 60 miles per hour have rapidly spread the flames. Both of these fires are in Ventura County, where the 282,000-acre Thomas Fire burned late last year. The Woolsey Fire is also in Los Angeles County.

This is actually the second round of big, dangerous fires in California this year. The Thomas Fire was only extinguished in January. Then the gargantuan Mendocino Complex Fire sparked and burned more than 459,000 acres in July. And in August, the deadly Carr Fire started in Shasta County.

You can see the current rash of fires in this map from Cal Fire:

If this seems like a pattern, it is. And it is poised to get worse in many parts of the state as average temperatures rise with climate change.

But remember that wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem. They provide a vital service to forests and grasslands, clearing out decaying brush and helping plants germinate. However, the massive wildfires we’ve seen in recent years are hardly natural; humans have made them worse at every step.

For one thing, people are building increasingly closer to grasslands and forests that regularly burn. This increases the likelihood of people igniting fires and the damage from the fires that do occur. Humans already ignite the vast majority of wildfires. Active fire suppression tactics have also prevented smaller fires from burning, allowing fuel to accumulate and drive surging conflagrations.

Human activity is also changing the climate. Warmer temperatures have caused forests in the western United States to dry out, killing off 129 million trees in California alone, leaving many regions littered in dry fuel.

As climate scientist Daniel Swain wrote in this excellent thread, autumns in California are now both warmer and drier. “This is just *one example* of how a changing climate has affected key risk factors during what has already become California’s most destructive wildfire in history,” he wrote.

As such, fire officials no longer talk about fire seasons but fire years. According to Cal Fire, California has seen almost double the area burned across its service territory than at the same time last year. More than 1.3 million acres have burned throughout the state this year and more than 8.3 million acres across the United States as a whole.

On Saturday morning, President Trump blamed “gross mismanagement of the forests” for the fires and threatened to withhold federal funding from California.

The Pasadena Firefighters Association responded to the president on Sunday, stating the fires have “nothing to do with forest management”:

The National Weather Service reported that winds have slowed down in Northern California, which should give firefighters some relief and slow the spread of the Camp Fire. And in Southern California, winds are likely to continue blowing, so the fires could grow.

Some evacuation orders have been lifted, but red flag warnings remain in effect for many parts of the state.