Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Gabrielle Canon in San Francisco

California escaped deadly wildfires this summer. The danger isn’t over yet

A middle-aged white woman with long, thick blond hair and wearing a gray T-shirt is slightly out of focus in the foreground. She holds a pair of binoculars to her face to peer into a pine-covered, smoky valley.
Samsara Duffey, 45, looks out from the Patrol Mountain Fire Lookout in Augusta, Montana, on 16 July 2021. Photograph: Brittany Hosea-Small/Reuters

As the Labor Day holiday weekend draws the summer to a close, it’s been an unusually quiet season for fires across the American west.

Roughly 80,000 hectares (2m acres) have burned across the country so far, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), roughly 61% less than the 10-year average for this time of year. The decrease has been particularly pronounced in the fire-prone west, which has grown accustomed to seeing swaths of their parched forests and browning hillsides ignite but has largely been given a reprieve from a summer of smoke-filled skies.

In areas that are typically under threat, a severely wet winter set the stage for milder conditions through the spring, refreshing dry landscapes and lifting much of the region out of dire drought conditions. The enormous snowpack left behind remained robust even into the early summer months, providing a consistent watering of soil and plants. Well-timed storms, including the unusual Tropical Storm Hilary, doused southern California and other dry areas nearby, staving off fire dangers that typically rise at the end of summer and into autumn.

Risks remain – though there’s a chance that this year will prove to be extremely mild, there’s also plenty of time left for conditions to shift.

Gusty winds, common in California in the autumn, could fuel more of a fiery crescendo before the year is finished. “The conditions that usually lead to a destructive fire are coming,” said Isaac Sanchez, a battalion chief at Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. “It is going to happen.”

Already, August brought bigger burns that required more than half of the country’s firefighting resources. Lightning-caused fires tore through northern California and the Pacific north-west, and states across the south-west saw their hot, dry seasons stretch longer than usual, ramping up risks for this time of year.

In the south, especially in Texas and Louisiana, searing heat quickly cured vegetation in recent weeks, causing drought conditions to spike. The rapid onset of these devastatingly dry conditions have weakened trees across the region, and experts have warned that ignitions there could easily turn into hard-to-fight infernos.

Here’s what you need to know about this unique season and the months ahead.

What was so different about the past months?

Severe winter storms wreaked havoc across California at the start of this year, sweeping away farmland and leaving entire towns flooded. But deluges also offered a reprieve from the devastating drought levels that have long held the western region in its grip. Wet conditions lasting far longer than usual in the year reduced higher risks from thunderstorms that have led to destructive fires in the past.

“Northern California has seen more lightning than it did in 2021 and 2020 combined,” said Adrienne Freeman, a fire communication officer based in California with the National Forest Service, of events that happened through the spring. But because the lightning came with moisture, it didn’t ignite a catastrophe, she added. In June alone, nearly 43,000 lightning strikes were counted, according to the NIFC – and that’s more than the area typically gets in an entire year. The monthly average there is less than 3,600.

“We are pretty lucky,” said Dr Craig Clements, director of the wildfire interdisciplinary research center at San Jose State University. For the first time in years, Clements documented vegetation with normal moisture levels through July. “We had green hills in northern California all through May,” he said. “Last year, they were fully cured by March 1.”

The lighter season has had positive ripple effects. It has allowed for more opportunities to fireproof high-threat areas, using strategies like prescribed burning that help mitigate future fire risk. It also meant that when fires did break out, crews had the energy and resources to tackle them.

When fire threats stretch through the year, with firefighters out battling active blazes, the windows to treat landscapes can be missed, according to Freeman. “I think we will see more treatments happening as conditions allow,” she said.

Did the storms reduce fire risk into the future?

Though the storms stemmed the most dangerous type of fire conditions from forming in California this spring, they also left behind a mess of downed trees and chewed-through roads that could make future fires more difficult to fight.

There are now layers of dead branches and topped trunks littered across forest floors and piled into canopies, creating excellent fuel for flames. “We had trees that were weakened by drought for three years and then all of a sudden they get huge snow loads,” said Freeman.

The storms also created access issues in more remote parts of the state where blazes are more likely to burn. Landslides and other types of storm damage have left mountain roads closed for months, which may pose problems if fire crews need to get equipment into the areas. The carnage might not translate into bigger blazes this year – but they could prove harmful for years or even decades to come.

In the lower right, walking toward the camera on a slick two-lane road, is a man in a bright orange safety vest and a white hard hat. Beyond him, the road is completely covered in rocks and trees from the hillside to the right. A green highway sign says Plumas.
Caltrans maintenance supervisor Matt Martin walks by a landslide caused by heavy rains covering Highway 70 in Plumas county, California, in October 2021. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

Still, in their latest forecast, released 1 September, NIFC experts warned that significant fire potential will tick up in the north-west and in northern California through September, before dropping back to normal through the rest of the year.

So the west could be spared. What about other US areas?

While the US west had a lighter-than-average season, other areas of the country – and the world – have been hit incredibly hard.

The NIFC bumped the US-wide rating of wildfire resource-use to level 4, out of five levels total, on 17 August – an indication that blazes are being battled across most of the country and that more than half of all resources have been committed. Hawaii, where the deadliest fire in the last century leveled the Maui town of Lahaina in August, will continue to face increased fire conditions through September, according to the agency.

While the number of acres burned has been much lower overall, parts of the south are now bracing for risks to rise.

Fires are also largely becoming global affairs, and increasingly fire crews are deploying across borders to fight them. With less pressure on resources, there’s been more availability to send help. The US has deployed 2,269 personnel to battle blazes in Canada, which has had an exponentially explosive season.

Clements, who provides information and research to Cal Fire when fires erupt, deployed to share advice and tools in Greece this summer, where a wildfire that erupted on the island of Rhodes forced thousands into a frantic evacuation, the largest in the country’s history.

Will autumn and winter be safer?

The cooler, wetter weather ahead is expected to dampen the dangers across much of the country, but in California, where autumn often brings brutally strong, dry winds, the worst conditions could still be coming.

“In the absence of a resilient landscape, it is just a matter of luck,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, fire network director for the University of California’s division of agriculture and natural resources. “If we get the wrong weather at the wrong time and that aligns with the really dry fuels – which we know we have way too many of – it could still end up being a really serious fire season.”

A bleak, smoky landscape with burned-out cars in the foreground and rubble beyond them, with blackened trees.
Homes leveled by the Camp fire line a development on Edgewood Lane in Paradise, California, in 2018. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

And, even in a softer season, all it takes is one bad fire to devastate a community. Acreage is a lacking measurement when it comes to severity. The fires that decimated Maui this year, claiming the lives of more than 100 people, were small by comparison with most notable western blazes. The Camp fire, which erupted late in November 2017, burned just over 62,000 hectares (153,000 acres), a relatively small blaze by recent standards. But it took the lives of 85 people, becoming one of the deadliest in US history, and reduced the town of Paradise to ash.

Quinn-Davidson emphasized the need to build more resilient landscapes and communities rather than hope for favorable conditions to continue. This could be the second consecutive year California gets through the summer and autumn without being shrouded in smoke, but significant risks remain.

“Last year we got lucky, but what can we do to be less reliant on luck?” she said. “We can take a more proactive approach, we can have more agency,” she added, championing more ambitious plans to treat landscapes before they ignite and prepare those who live in fire-prone areas.

“The current model we operate under is really waiting and seeing,” she said. “I think we are at the end of the rope with that.”

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.