ENVIRONMENT

California Fires Burn Nearly 2,000% More Land Than Last Year

“CLIMATE. CHANGE. IS. REAL,” tweeted Gov. Gavin Newsom.

California’s devastating fires this year continue to set records as 10 major fires burn across the state, destroying more than 3,000 homes and forcing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate. 

This year so far, blazes have burned a historic 2.3 million acres across the state — representing a nearly 2,000% increase in land burned compared with this time last year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.

“Historic is a term we seemingly often use here in the state of California,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said Tuesday in a news conference. “But… this is historic, this is the largest fire season we’ve had in terms of total acreage impacted… in recorded, recent modern history.”

In just the past three weeks, the state has seen more than 900 fires, with 25 of them considered major. Eight people have died and 42,000 residents are currently under orders to evacuate their homes. 

Two massive fires in Northern California — the SCU Complex fires between San Jose and Stockton, which has burned 396,000 acres, and the LNU Complex fires in Sonoma and Napa counties, which has burned 375,000 acres — are, respectively, the second and third largest in state history. While these were both over 90% contained as of Tuesday, the governor warned of high winds of up to 50 miles an hour later Tuesday, which could threaten firefighters’ progress.

In the Creek fire outside Fresno — which has burned over 143,000 acres and is so far 0% contained — National Guard members had to rescue 214 people with helicopters this weekend.

And fire season is just getting started. The biggest fires in previous years have typically occurred in the fall, with the deadly 2017 fires in Sonoma County sparking in October, the 2018 fire in Paradise — the deadliest in the state’s history — in November, and major fires in Southern California in 2017 — the fourth largest in state history in December

“CLIMATE. CHANGE. IS. REAL,” Newsom tweeted on Tuesday. 

There was also a “massive, record-breaking heat wave,” Newsom said, over Labor Day weekend, with Los Angeles County seeing its highest temperature ever recorded, 121 degrees Fahrenheit, and other regions also experiencing triple-digit heat.

In Northern California, electric company PG&E cut power to about 172,000 households starting Monday night in an effort to prevent fires that might be sparked by electrical lines. Some customers might not have electricity restored until late Wednesday, the utility said.  

Unhealthful levels of smoke and particulate matter from the fires have spread over almost the entire state in recent weeks, with air pollution levels deemed “very unhealthy” and even “hazardous” by the EPA across broad swaths of California on Tuesday. 

The smoky air can put vulnerable groups, including homeless residents, particularly at risk amid the coronavirus pandemic, with COVID-19 often affecting the respiratory system. California is still seeing an average of more than 4,300 confirmed coronavirus cases per day.