After record-setting fires in 2020 and 2021, the summer of 2022 could be even worse.
Historically dry conditions appear likely to lead to another summer of fire in California.Bureau of Land Management / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
In the Angeles National Forest in the early afternoon of June 11, just northeast of Wrightwood in San Bernardino County, a brush fire started burning. What caused the fire remains undetermined, but the threat of fire was elevated throughout Southern California due to dry conditions and hot weather. Even though the winds at the time were relatively mild, the fire took all of two-and-a-half hours to explode from 45 acres to 775 acres.
The Sheep Fire, as it was named by the state agency CalFire, burned 865 acres before it was fully contained—an effort that took seven days and 600 firefighters—and was the largest California blaze of 2022 before summer had even begun. But if forecasters and climate experts prove to be correct, the Sheep Fire was just a brief preview of what’s yet to come.
But the early arrival of the Sheep Fire and other blazes, including the 5,800 acre Lost Lake Fire in Riverside County and Inyo County’s 4,100-acre Airport Fire in February, appear to indicate that “fire season,” which has traditionally been marked from July to October, is expanding throughout the year—thanks to climate change. Research has shown that the earlier spring weather begins—that is, melting snow and higher overall temperatures—the more frequent and more severe wildfires become.
The same holds true on the other end of the year. As the climate warms, California winter fires have become more damaging. From 1950 to 2020, fires in December, January and February burned fewer than 10,000 acres per year on average. In 2017, however, a record number of fires burned during those months. One fire alone, the Thomas Fire, burned almost 300,000 acres, starting in December and continuing for six months
In Northern California, site of 2020’s record-setting August Complex Fire, the 2021 Dixie Fire, which placed a close second on the state’s all-time list, and the Caldor Fire, which forced 20,000 people to evacuate South Lake Tahoe, the wildfire outlook for the remaining months of 2022 is for “above normal significant fire potential,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
But what is “normal?” According to California Polytechnic State University wildfire expert Christopher Dicus, who spoke to KSBY-TV in San Luis Obispo, “normal” means that “we could have a catastrophic wildfire at any point.”
What Causes Wildfires?
Throughout the United States, since the year 2000, an average of more than 70,000 wildfires have burned each year, torching over 7 million acres, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). In the 1990s, there were actually more fires each year—closer to 79,000—but they burned less than half the acreage. From 2012 to 2021, the number of wildfires went down somewhat, according to the CRS, to just over 61,000, but those fires burned an average of 7.4 million acres every year.
And in 2022, by June 1, more than 27,800 fires had swept through 1.9 million acres, according to the CRS.
So what’s causing all of these fires? People. According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 84 percent of wildfires are caused by human activity. The figure is even higher—97 percent—for wildfires that start within one kilometer of a residential home, research at the University of Colorado-Boulder found.
While the largest fire in California history, the August Complex, was ignited by lightning, as was the fourth largest—the 2020 SCU Lightning Complex—and the CZU Lightning Complex, human-started fires are more dangerous, a study by researchers at U.C.-Irvine found. The researchers used high-resolution satellite images to study 214 California wildfires from 2012 to 2018. They found that human-caused wildfires spread more than twice as fast as lightning-caused fires.
They also found that human-caused fires burned down trees at two to three times the rate of “natural” fires. What’s the difference? Even though “a fire is a fire,” as lead researcher Stijn Hantson said, humans tended to start fires on days with fire-friendly weather conditions, such as high winds that cause flames to spread faster. People are also more likely to start fires in drier areas, while lightning strikes often happen in areas with live, moist vegetation that helps to slow blazes before they run out of control.
One Way To Slow Fire Season: Start Your Own Fires
In October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed what experts called a “monumental” piece of fire legislation. Senate Bill 332 was designed to provide protection against wildfires burning out of control. The bill made it easier for landowners to start their own fires.
Called “prescribed fires,” or “controlled burns,” these deliberately set fires eliminate dry and dead vegetation, and other fuel that promote the spread of flames, keeping damage from wildfires to a minimum. In September of 2021, as the KNP Complex Fire blazed a path toward Sequoia National Park threatening to destroy the giant Sequoia trees there, controlled burns were credited with bringing the flames to a halt, saving the historic trees.
Prior to the new law, carrying out prescribed burns carried a significant financial risk. The individuals or organizations who started the controlled fires could be held liable for the costs of any damage they caused. Under SB 332, however, people who set prescribed fires for the express purpose of preventing future fires are protected from that liability. The only exception to this new immunity would come in cases of “gross negligence.”
Insurance industry groups opposed the law, saying in a prepared statement that it was wrong to “lessen the legal accountability standard of professionals doing one of the most dangerous things one can do in California — start a wildfire.”
Law Allows Tribes to Resume Controlled Fires
California’s indigenous peoples have practiced prescribed burning for centuries, both to control wildfires as well as for traditional, cultural purposes. But starting in the early 20th century, state officials took aggressive steps to shut the practice down. In a 1918 letter to a supervisor—preserved by executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council Margo Robbins, a Yurok Tribe member—one forest ranger advocated simply killing “renegade whites and Indians” caught setting prescribed fires.
“Every time you catch one sneaking around in the brush like a coyote, take a shot at him,” the ranger said in the letter. The federal government’s position was similar. In 1911, Congress passed and Pres. William Howard Taft signed the Weeks Act, a landmark conservation bill that made it illegal to set fires on public lands—effectively outlawing centuries-old practices for managing fire employed by forest-dwelling tribes such as the Hupa, Yurok and Karuk who inhabit the northwest region of California.
But the 2021 law “opens the door to us to start taking care of our land with fire again without fear of going to prison,” Robbins said in a news report.
Drought and Wildfire
Dry vegetation is potent fuel for wildfires, and it’s not going away anytime soon because California is going through one of the driest periods in its history. As of mid-June, according to the federal government’s National Integrated Drought Information System, almost the entire population of California was living under some degree of drought conditions, with 99.8 percent of the state experiencing at least “moderate” drought—but 97.5 percent under “severe” drought. Even the small area of the state, in the northwest corner on the Oregon state line, that is not under drought conditions is nonetheless classified as “abnormally dry” by the NIDIS.
The “rainy” season didn’t do much for California’s drought situation. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, the January to April months in California were the driest ever recorded for that period. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which typically supplies about one-third of all water consumed in the state, was down to below 20 percent of normal levels by the end of May, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Below elevations of 8,000 feet ‘“snow cover is virtually non-existent” the U.S. Drought Monitor reported, and the peak levels of water flow from the snowpack into reservoirs and rivers occurred “weeks ahead of normal.”
The drought is so severe that the state’s power grid is at risk. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the state’s production of hydroelectric power will drop to about half of normal levels during the summer of 2022, thanks to the water shortage.
Not only does drought cause increased fire risks, so does the effort to alleviate the drought. Many areas of California have imposed water restrictions, preventing residents from watering lawns—and that means even more dried out vegetation and fuel for fires.
But fire experts say that the best fire prevention strategy has nothing to do with whether yards and lawns are watered, but how much vegetation can simply be moved out.
“If you have dense brush and trees up against your house on a hot, windy day, it doesn’t matter if they’re well irrigated,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told the Los Angeles Times. “They’re still going to burn.”