Firefighters in California are battling three sizable wildfires in what authorities are characterizing as a worrying sign that this year’s fire season could be even more devastating than the record-breaking destruction seen in 2020.
“We’re seeing a large increase in fires on a historical basis compared to where we would be at this time last year,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Joh Heggie said. “This is a large indicator that we’re looking at another busy fire season — all the same scenarios that set up last year for such a devastating year have the same potential for this year.”
As of Friday morning, the Lava Fire north of Mount Shasta, an active volcano, had burned 23,849 acres, with 27% of the flames contained by a team of over 1,000 firefighters, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The fire sparked June 25 after a lightning strike.
To the north, in the Klamath National Forest, the Tennant Fire has been rapidly growing since Monday afternoon — already burning 9,836 acres, with 6% containment. According to the U.S. Forest Service, more than 500 firefighters are attempting to control it.
In Shasta County — some 20 miles north of Redding, Calif. — the Salt Fire broke out Wednesday morning, covering 4,500 acres in flames and destroying “at least a dozen homes, garages and other outbuildings” on Thursday, the Redding Record Searchlight reported.
Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, said conditions have been ripe for an active wildfire season.
“All the ingredients were there,” Quinn-Davidson said. “We’re in an extended drought. We had really low levels of precipitation over the winter and fuels — the trees, bushes and stuff on the ground — are just incredibly dry.”
The season’s peak is still to come — usually taking place further along in the summer. However, according to Cal Fire data, the number of fires thus far in 2021 has already surpassed what was seen at this point in 2020. The total number of acres burned, however, is lower.
According to National Interagency Fire Center data, 31,069 wildfires have broken out in the United States so far this year, the most in the January to July time period since 2011.
So far, 1.48 million acres have burned — slightly up from last year’s total at this point in 2020. However, that figure is still less than the year-to-date average of 2.23 million acres for the last decade, and well behind the harrowing 4.5 million acres seen in 2011.
These numbers have already sounded the alarms at the state and federal level.
President Joe Biden held a virtual meeting Wednesday with governors from Western states. Recalling how the “orange skies look like end-of-days smoke and ash,” — horrific scenes from 2020′s wildfires — Biden announced a plan to both hire more federal firefighters and raise their pay.
“We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires or supporting our firefighters,” Biden said to the governors. “Right now we have to act and act fast.″
For Yana Valachovic, forest adviser and county director a the University of California Cooperative Extension, a combination of adaptation, prevention and action is necessary.
Valachovic said reestablishing intentional fires — those that are set in a controlled way to promote ecological health — can both “create resilience to climate change conditions and address the fuel accumulation issue.” The amounts of dead vegetation, which is considerably dry due to the ongoing drought, can be managed through mechanical treatments and targeted grazing.
Another essential aspect is improving buildings’ resiliency and what is known as defensible space, or the buffer between a building and the surrounding wildland.
“It will take a coupled approach to accelerate the pace and scale of action on many levels,” Valachovic said.
In the short-term, experts anticipate more extreme weather, like the current heat wave and drought.
“Those kinds of things are becoming more common and contributing further to fire behavior and higher frequency,” Quinn-Davidson said.
Such effects have already taken a toll on California’s residents, with 8,000 people being evacuated because of the Lava Fire alone, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Now, the American Red Cross is bracing itself to provide shelter to many more.
As of Thursday evening, the organization had opened two evacuation centers — one in Siskiyou County in response to the Lava Fire and the other in Shasta County for Salt Fire evacuees. But Stephen Walsh, regional communications director, said the Red Cross is anticipating activating more.
“This summer — looking at the models and the statistics — this is going to be the worst one yet for wildfires in Northern California,” Walsh said.