clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why the wildfire in Northern California was so severe

Heat, wind, and drought — and long-term climate trends — conspired to create the deadly Camp Fire.

Yuba and Butte County sheriff deputies search a destroyed home for a reported victim of the Camp Fire on November 10, 2018 in Paradise, California.
Yuba and Butte County sheriff deputies search a destroyed home for a reported victim of the Camp Fire on November 10, 2018, in Paradise, California.
Justin Sullivan/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.

The Camp Fire in northern California is now the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record, causing at least 63 deaths and destroying more than 12,000 structures. Since igniting last Thursday, the blaze has scorched more than 142,000 acres, an area more than four times the size of San Francisco.

Though the fire has been burning in a relatively unpopulated area near Chico, California the entire town of Paradise, home to 26,000, burned down, leaving many homeless.

Camp is alarmingly reminiscent of the Carr Fire, which burned more than 229,000 acres near Redding, California in August. Many of the same factors that made the Carr Fire so calamitous are fueling the Camp Fire right now. In particular, it’s hot, it’s dry, it’s windy, there’s been little rain, and just about all the vegetation around is flammable.

As climate change pushes temperatures up, vegetation like grasses and trees are dying out. This creates ample fuel to burn. Outside of Chico, where the Camp Fire began burning, the flames were then fanned by northern California’s Diablo Winds with gusts topping 70 mph. The fire at one point gained about a football field in area per second.

Though the Camp Fire resulted from a perfect set of extreme fire conditions that all coincidentally came together at the same time, some of those conditions were years in the making.

It’s an example of how forces in the climate that build up over decades can act on the scale of days, even hours, creating a terrifying scenario the likes of which we have never experienced before: The largest, deadliest, and most destructive fires in California history were all within three months of each other this year. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has seen almost double the acres burned across its service territory compared to the same time last year.

Though climate change will never cause any individual event, scientists reported in 2016 that about 55 percent of the dryness in western forests between 1979 and 2015 could be attributed to warming due to human activity. This ongoing warming converges with seasonal variations in temperature and rainfall. “Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of many US forests through fire, insect infestations, drought, and disease outbreaks,” according to the US government’s National Climate Assessment.

In California’s case, it’s helped to fuel a massive, years-long drought. That’s led to a staggering 129 million dead trees throughout the state, leaving dry kindling scattered throughout forests and creating severe fire conditions that blanket huge swaths of the state.

Fires are a normal part of the natural ecosystem in many parts of California, helping rejuvenate forests and grasslands. However, property developers have often pursued a strategy of suppressing fires when they occur instead of letting them run their natural course. This protects lives and property in the short term, but it also allows fuel to accumulate, increasing the hazards from fires that do eventually occur.

At the same time, people are also responsible for starting the vast majority of wildfires.

In the case of the Carr Fire, investigators blame sparks from a broken down car. The Camp Fire may have started from sparking power lines. As more and more people sprawl out from California’s expensive cities in search of scenic views and cheap real estate, they come into closer contact with forests and grasslands primed to burn. This increases the likelihood of a fire and increases the damages that do occur.

With fire seasons stretching out almost all year in the West, it’s going to get harder to escape the risks of flames, smoke, and dust. And as temperatures continue to rise and populations grow, the state of California will see more severe and unprecedented fires on the horizon. Here’s how climate scientist Daniel Swain put it recently on Twitter: