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California’s largest wildfire on record is now a million-acre “gigafire”

The August Complex Fire in Northern California has now burned an area larger than Rhode Island.

Maxar closeup satellite imagery of the active fire line of the August Complex Fire near Big Signal Peak
A satellite image of the August Complex Fire on September 14, 2020. The blaze is now the largest on record for the state.
Maxar Technologies/DigitalGlobe/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.

A single wildfire in California has reached the stunning size of more than 1 million acres, becoming the first “gigafire” in the state in decades.

As of Tuesday morning, the August Complex Fire in the northern part of the state had burned at least 1,003,300 acres and was 54 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). The area that has burned since the fire ignited on August 16 is larger than Rhode Island and spans seven counties.

The blaze is just one of almost two dozen major wildfires in the Golden State right now in what has already been an extraordinary year for these sweeping infernos.

Across the state, fires have burned a record-shattering 4 million acres so far in 2020. “The 4 million mark is unfathomable. It boggles the mind, and it takes your breath away,” Scott McLean, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, told the Associated Press on October 4. “And that number will grow.”

At least 31 people have died in California as a result of the fires, and millions are facing the health risks of deadly air pollution as clouds of smoke settle over urban areas. The fires have also destroyed more than 8,000 structures.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NOAA-20 satellite captured this natural-color image of the state on October 1, 2020. 
This NOAA satellite image shows smoke spreading from California’s fires on October 1, 2020.
NASA Earth Observatory

And it’s not just California that’s been burned badly; Western states including Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have also seen severe wildfires this year. It’s the breathtaking culmination of bad luck, years of poor forestry practices, urban development, and climate change.

Why wildfires got to be so bad in 2020

A number of factors have converged to create this unprecedented season of wildfires. This summer, much of the western United States experienced record heat and severe drought conditions. That left grasses, shrubs, and forests dry and ready to burn. In August, Northern California experienced a massive thunderstorm that delivered little rain but more than 11,000 lightning strikes, igniting more than 300 blazes, including the fires that make up the August Complex.

Typically, the vast majority of wildfires are ignited by human sources, like power lines, camp fires, heavy machinery, and arson, so having so many blazes sparked from a natural source is unusual.

But 2020’s wildfires are emerging on top of a growing trend of large, dangerous wildfires, especially in California. Of the 20 largest fires on record in California, 17 have ignited since 2000. The five largest wildfires in state history ignited this year.

Wildfires are a natural and important part of forest, grassland, and chaparral shrubland in the West. However, human activity is making these wildfires worse at every step.

That’s due in part to climate change, which is leading to hotter, arid conditions that fuel larger wildfires.

Another consequence of climate change is that the wildfire season itself is getting longer. “What you can say is that our fire seasons here in California have on average expanded by 75 days,” Lynnette Round, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, told Vox in September. “Our summers are longer, which means that conditions are hotter, they’re drier, and that makes us more susceptible to wildfires.”

It’s also due to human development in the wildland-urban interface as neighborhoods sprawl into fire zones. That increases the risk of igniting a fire and raises the damage total of the blazes that do occur.

Decades of suppressing naturally occurring wildfires have also led vegetation to accumulate so that when conditions do get hot and dry, there’s much more fuel to burn. California has also seen years of clear-cutting diverse forests and replacing them with a single tree species. A diverse array of species in a forest helps naturally regulate and limit wildfires while monocultures can become more vulnerable to major fires.

Historically, there have been larger individual gigafires sporadically in the western United States. The Great Fire of 1910 burned more than 3 million acres across Idaho and Montana, for instance. But since the 1970s, the overall annual area burned by wildfires has been trending upward, and in California, the August Complex is now the largest on record for the state.

Forecasts show that conditions remain ripe to spread wildfires. For the August Complex, Cal Fire is expecting high temperatures and low humidity levels, but lower wind speeds. And autumn is the season for high winds like the Diablo Winds in Northern California that can gust up to 70 mph. As these winds pick up, they could spread the flames further.

In addition to the immense challenge of containing such a huge blaze burning in the wilderness, firefighters have to contend with the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing crews to take infection control precautions as they try to keep the flames in check. California’s firefighting efforts also rely on prison labor, with almost 200 inmate fire crews. Inmates are paid between $2 and $5 a day, plus $1 per hour when fighting a fire. However, Covid-19 has spread in prisons, forcing the state to release some inmates to relieve overcrowding and to quarantine others. That has left the state scrambling to make up the labor shortfall.

These factors are only complicating what has already been a brutal year for the Golden State.

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